“elephants” on the beach

We hiked about a mile and a half out to the sand dunes at Año Nuevo state park, and were excited to find the giant forms of sleeping Elephant Seals there.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

One of several inter-dune spots we visited where mostly male Elephant Seals congregate to wait for arriving females. A single female nursing her newborn pup in the center foreground.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

Males arrive first (November to March) to establish their territories; females (short-nosed individual in the center) arrive later, giving birth after their 11 month gestation within about 5 days of their arrival.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

There is a lot of machismo on display, and mock battles take place between all ages of males. Although they are sexually mature at 5 or 6 years, they usually can’t maintain a harem of females until they are big and strong enough at 11-12 years.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

What’s the big nose for? Likened to an elephant trunk, which is how these seals got their name, their proboscis grows in length, can be inflated with air, and gives their low-pitched staccato vocalization a deeper and more threatening tone.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

Males might try to have their way with females even as they emerge from the sea, but females hold their own, and remain unreceptive until after they have given birth.  This female is expressing her displeasure with a male’s advances with sharp barks and open mouth gape.  

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

Mature males reach about 14 feet in length and might weigh more than 2 tons. Females are much smaller, 10 feet in length and reaching about 1500 pounds max. Elephant seals are the largest seals and far outweigh potential terrestrial predators like the grizzly bear.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

Mature males collect a harem of females which they defend from other males, by engaging in vocalizing, assuming threat postures, or in actual fights. Once the females have their pups, they become sexually receptive, allow males to fertilize them, and the next cycle of gestation begins while they are still nursing the current year’s pup.  In this harem, I count at least 5 pups.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

Pups are born with black coats, which eventually are replaced with the light brown fur. They gain about 10 pounds per day, but are nursed for just one month, reaching about 250 pounds before their mothers return to the sea to feed.  They are on their own to learn how to swim and to find food!

Elephant seals don’t eat or drink while on land, instead subsisting on the fat stores acquired during their many months at sea.  When they leave the breeding beaches, males and females take differ routes to feeding grounds either along the coast (males) or open ocean (females), but both feed at extreme depths, up to 5000 feet deep in dives lasting almost 2 hours.  (There are some special adaptations for that activity, to be discussed later). Preferred foods are usually benthic forms like rays, bottom-dwelling sharks, squid, hagfish, etc.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

Bearing the scars of many battles on his thickened neck skin, this giant bull elephant seal looks passive at rest.  But watch what the bulls can do to each other in the video below.

From David Attenborough’s “life in the freezer”


a dog and her ball

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix For those following the travelog, yes we made it to California, just an hour before a major winter snowfall hit Donner Pass.  Cars were delayed 17 hours on I-80 and chains we didn’t have were required after 36 inches of snow fell on the Sierras over the weekend.

The grandkid cousins had a chance to play together and exercise the McNab border collie that lives here in CA.  She’s great entertainment for the kids, and gave me a chance to practice my high speed (and she is definitely a high-speed chaser) photography.

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix

Look at that take-off!

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix

my ball!!

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix

Granddaughter thought she could try to keep up with the dog…hah!

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix

In most fleet-footed chasers, the flexion of the spine and extension of its entire length is what makes the animal gain a lot of ground in one stride, and if they can flex and extend quickly, they can achieve great speed and distance covered.  

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix

Look at the extension as she grabs for the ball.

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix

Eye on the ball…

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix


Crossing America — Wyoming

Take the vast, open prairie of South Dakota, and remove the cows and farms, add some bunch grasses, sage brush, and pockets of stunted juniper, along with a few rolling hills, and you have Eastern Wyoming.

Eastern Wyoming highway

Eastern Wyoming open spaces

Snow makes this landscape completely homogeneous. There’s a tiny house/farm in the distance.

Eastern Wyoming open spaces

There is a lot of open space here, miles and miles of monotonous sameness.  Oh look, a mountain ridge in the view adds a little variety to the landscape.

Somehow on our way from I-90 to I-80 in eastern Wyoming, we got off the beaten track and stumbled across a road through a picturesque canyon right before sunset.  One of those construction signs with lighted messages warned us, “wildlife next 10 miles”.  This was quite exciting because we had seen a total of exactly one hawk the entire day.  Sure enough around one corner, there were three mule deer standing next to the road, but they quickly scurried away.

Mule deer, Sybille Canyon, Wheatland, WY

Two mule deer does just as surprised to see us as we were to see them.

We spotted a raven or two as we drove along the smaller roads, but the winter landscape in this part of Wyoming seems devoid of wildlife: few hawks, no coyotes, no antelope, no jack rabbits, no cattle, no people.  It might as well be the Gobi desert.

In the twilight we negotiated our way back to I-80 and were treated with a glorious sunset.

Wyoming sunset

Wyoming sunset

The next day, following I-80 west from Rawlings to Evanston and then into Utah, the Wyoming landscape got more and more interesting, as rolling hills of sagebrush gave way to rocky cliffs, deep canyons, and taller juniper interspersed with a few pines.  But the sparseness of human settlement did not change. This is land for the very rugged, independent, individualists of us, who really enjoy their alone time.

a Wyoming farm

Nearest neighbor…25 miles?

Wyoming cliffs near Rock Springs

Bald Eagle over cliffs near Green River, WY

Flying over the cliffs near Green River, a Bald Eagle glided slowly toward the river. That was one of 4 raptors we saw that day.

Wyoming is challenging, and mystifying, and interesting, and welcoming.  Towns have unusual names like Winner (where you introduce yourself by saying you’re a Winner-ite), Chugwater (how do you suppose it got that name?), and Guernsey (are there actual cows there?).  Friendly hotel and restaurant personnel provide wonderful service, with nary a country twang in their speech.  And I bet they are strong enough to throw a hay bale up on a pickup!

Looking back on 2018 — oh, the places we’ve seen!

What a fabulous year of sight-seeing, from Peru to the U.K and Iceland, to the wilds of California and Minnesota, and scenic coastlines of northeastern North America. It’s so hard choose the favorites, so instead I chose representative ones that bring back fond memories.  I hope you enjoy the re-run of the previous year’s landscapes.

Llamas at Machu Picchu, Peru

Llamas at Machu Picchu, Peru.  The iconic mountain view looming over the city ruins with the iconic mammals of the region!

Peruvian village in the mountains near Pisac

Peruvian village in the rugged Andes mountains near Pisac.

Lake near Sillustani, city of the dead, Puno, Peru

What looks like a floating island in a lake near Sillustani, the city of the dead, Puno, Peru.

Crossing the Amazon, Peru

A typical scene of family crossing the Amazon, 50 miles upstream from Iquitos, Peru.

Coal house near Thornham Harbor, Norfolk, England

Coal house and ancient boat near Thornham Harbor, Norfolk, England

Loch near Tongue, Scotland

Typical view of northern Scotland Lochs and Mountains with the gorse in bloom (near Tongue, Scotland).

Seacliffs, Handa Island, Scotland

Sea cliffs with lots of breeding sea birds all along the coast of Scotland.  This was on Handa Island, off the northwest coast of Scotland

Black sand beach at Vik, Iceland

Black sand beach at Vik, Iceland, with its strange volcanic remnants and steep sea cliffs along the coast on a typical “spring” day (May).

On the road to Vik, Iceland

On the road to Vik, Iceland, lots of exposed lava, high mountains, waterfalls, and glaciers.  It’s the land of Ice and Fire (a la Game of Thrones).

Iceland’s waterfalls: Gullfoss

Iceland’s waterfalls: Gullfoss drains an enormous inland glacier.

Minnesota autumn colors

Autumn colors on one of Minnesota’s 10,000+ lakes.

Winter in rural Minnesota

This is the classic scene of winter in the upper midwestern U.S.: gray and white with blotches of brown. Dreary, cold, uninviting…but picturesque.

And now on to 2019…

Looking back — wildlife encounters in 2018

Our travels took us far and wide this year: Peru, England, Scotland, Iceland, California a few times, New England and Maritime provinces of Canada, Florida, and of course, northern Minnesota.  There were so many interesting, colorful, and unique encounters with wildlife it was hard to pick favorites, but my choices are partly based on diversity of subject material.  Of the ones below (that made my top 15 list), which are your favorites? (You can click or tap on each image to enlarge it to full screen and use the back arrow to return to the post.)

Red Fox

Red Fox in the MN back yard, January 2018

White-tailed Buck

White-railed Buck in the MN backyard January 2018

Male Anna Hummingbird

Male Anna Hummingbird displaying in the CA back yard, January 2018

Blue Tit

Blue Tit, in Norfolk, England, in April 2018

Atlantic Puffin

Puffin from Farne Islands, England, April, 2018

Gray Wolf

Gray Wolf, MN Zoo, August, 2018

Icelandic ponies, Hella, Iceland

Icelandic ponies, Hella, Iceland, May 2018

Juvenile White-crowned Sparrow, San Jose, CA, February, 2018

Grey seals

Grey seals on the Farne Islands, England, in April 2018

Cream-colored Woodpecker

Female Cream-colored Woodpecker, Ceiba Tops Lodge on the Amazon, Peru, March 2018

Alpaca in the Andean altiplano, Peru

Alpaca grazing in the Andean altiplano, Peru, March 2018

Masked Crimson Tanager at Ceiba Tops Lodge, Peru, February, 2018

Yellow-bellied spider monkey

Yellow-bellied Spider Monkey, Ceiba Tops Lodge, Peru, February 2018

Red Squirrel, Rothiemurchus estate, Scotland, May 2018

Red Squirrel, Rothiemurchus estate, Scotland, May 2018

Seed thief

Early one morning, just as it was getting light, I strolled out to the porch overlooking the back yard with my coffee and saw this.

deer robbing bird feeder-

So that’s why this bird feeder has been emptied so quickly recently…

After the first few nights when temperatures dropped into single digits in the back yard, there were dozens of chickadees, nuthatches, and goldfinches flocking to this feeder in the early morning.  I filled it almost daily, thinking I was feeding just birds.  Apparently not.

doe robbing bird feeder-

I rapped on the window, and the yearling doe stopped in mid-chew to stare at me.

doe robbing bird feeder

And then she continued with her breakfast, unperturbed by my presence at the window.

So I yelled through the window at her, and she finally moseyed off…

white-tailed doe-

“OK, I’m leaving”, she seemed to say

white-tailed does

And off she went with a friend, to explore some other back yards.  

I’m sure the sunflower seeds gave this animal an added boost of protein for a few days; who knows, it might help her survive the long winter fast she is about to endure.  Needless to say, I raised the feeder on its perch, so she can’t reach it — at least until the snow pack around its base gets higher.

Tiny mobsters

Forest walk, Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN

Forest walk, Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN

We got a good demonstration of just how many tiny birds were present in the woods alongside roads in Sax-Zim bog, when our guide (Clinton Nienhaus, head naturalist at the bog) briefly played the call of a Screech Owl.  Within a couple of minutes, dozens of Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches appeared, calling continuously to sound the alert of a predator’s presence.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch, one of about a dozen, sounding the alert in response to a Screech Owl call.

Weighing in at a whopping 10 grams (less than a fast-food packet of ketchup), tiny Red-breasted Nuthatches are just a bit smaller than Chickadees, but even a small bird with that sharp-pointed beak could do some damage at close range.  In any case, the point of the mob action is to pester the would-be predator enough that it eventually flies away.  Mobs of small birds may also attract larger birds like jays and crows to help drive off the predator.

Red-breasted Nuthatches mobbing fake owl

Red-breasted Nuthatches and chickadees flit from branch to branch looking for the owl.  Since I have only ever seen a single or a pair of nuthatches at one time, this was a real treat to see so many of them in action.

Red-breasted Nuthatches prefer coniferous woods, like the black spruce and tamarack of the bog.  In the spring and summer, they are highly insectivorous, but like the chickadees, in the winter they love the peanuts and suet found at bird feeders.  Even though they are one of the smaller birds at the feeder, their feisty, aggressive behavior often drives bigger birds away.  Like their cousins, the White-breasted Nuthatch, they will store some of the feeder largesse in tree crevices for a snowy, cold day.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Looking up, looking down….where is that owl?

Sax-Zim bog is one of the premier birding areas in Minnesota, attractive to a number of Canadian breeding species like the Great Gray Owls and Hawk Owls, as well as northern breeding finches during the winter.  The farm fields filled with hay bales seem to be filled with mice and voles, perfect for raptors, and the dense spruce-tamarack forest provides good cover.  The Friends of Sax-Zim bog have established a welcome center where one can get a map, advice on where to search for some of the more exotic species, and even guided field trips to help you spot those elusive birds.

Field trip Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN

Field trip Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN.  We stopped here to check on the presence of Redpolls and other small finches.  Alas, only one Redpoll appeared, and only very briefly and far away.

For more information about the bog, visit their website (link above) or check out the photos and commentary of one of the founders of the organization, Sparky Stensaas at The Photonaturalist.

Finches of the forest

It was a treat to find two birds we never see in the Twin Cities at the feeders in Sax-Zim bog last weekend.  Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Grosbeaks are the largest members of the finch family, and like other finches, the male is brightly colored and the female is somewhat drab in comparison.

Male (left) and female Evening Grosbeak

Male (left) and female Evening Grosbeak

Male (top) and female Pine Grosbeak

Male (top) and female Pine Grosbeak

Both species use their large, crushing bills to harvest seeds out of reach of the smaller finches in the winter, but the summer diets of both are quite varied.

Male (top) and female Pine Grosbeak

Now that’s a big beak!

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeaks consume a lot of seeds in the winter, but they are largely insectivorous in the summer, especially when feeding chicks.  They are a major predator of the spruce budworm pest.  They are usually found in spruce-pine forests in southern Canada and the mountains of the western U.S. year-round.

Pine Grosbeak male

Pine Grosbeaks prefer a diet of fruit with their seeds and might feast on crabapples in a residential yard, as well as the sunflower seeds at the feeder.  They breed in the northern-most coniferous forests of Canada, feeding their chicks a mash of insect and vegetation.

The two species are not closely related, and the Pine Grosbeak is actually a circumpolar species, found in pine forests from Scandinavia to Eastern Asia, with its closest relatives being the European Bullfinches.  In North America, both species respond to winter food shortages with irruptive behavior that might involve flying miles south of their breeding territories.  Northern Minnesota is on the southern border of their winter range, so we felt lucky to see them.

…not a creature was stirring…

North of the Twin Cities of Minnesota about three hours drive is a vast boggy patchwork of black spruce-tamarack forest and open prairie/cropland that is the winter home of some of the raptors that breed in the Canadian tundra.  We visited there over the weekend hoping to see a few Snowly Owls and Rough-legged Hawks, the chief avian predators of the open fields between the swampy areas of Sax-Zim bog.

Birch-aspen forest in Sax-Zim bog, MN

We had high expectations of seeing our target species in these open fields on a frosty morning, when the thermometer hovered around 7 degreees F and the tips of the trees were covered in hoar frost.

Hoar frost

What little moisture is in this frigid winter air condenses into icy coatings on exposed branches when temperatures dip below the dew point at 7 degrees F.

Cropland in Sax-Zim bog, MN

Looking high in the trees for the hawks and low on the hay bales for the owls, we traversed the bog and crop lands searching for raptors. A Snowy Owl should be perched on one of the hay bales…

Cropland in Sax-Zim bog, MN

But not a creature was stirring. In fact, there were no birds of any sort flitting about. It was unnaturally still!  Rough-legged Hawks should be perched in one of the trees lining the open fields searching for mice…

Alas, a four-hour search turned up just one hawk, seen at a distance of about 1/4 mile, and no owls.  But there was a lot of photogenic scenery along the way (more on that next time…)

The next day we did find a Rough-legged Hawk perched right by the side of the road, overlooking a farm field of corn stubble, but the bird flew off as we drove up.  It would have been a nice photo op, something like this…

Rough-legged Hawk, Wikimedia Commons, photo by dfaulder

Rough-legged Hawk, (Wikimedia Commons, photo by dfaulder).

Heavily streaked with brown and sporting flashy white tail feathers and densely feathered legs to keep those toes warm in the frigid winter temperatures, these medium-sized hawks hunt for mice in the open fields.  But they will attack most any bird or mammal prey they find, including rabbits and weasels, snow buntings and tree sparrows, even other raptors from whom they may steal the food.  If live food is lacking, the hawks will feed on carrion.

Voles and lemmings make up the bulk of their diet, and there is some evidence that Rough-legged Hawks can actually see the scent marks left in the vole urine which is visible in the UV.  Imagine the hawk’s eyes following trails of blue fluorescing across the snow to where a mouse hides just under the crust.  Bam!  Dinner.