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.

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.

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: 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!!

Happy holidays, dear readers

We’re enjoying (?) an old-fashioned, super-white, super cold holiday season here in the upper Midwest. I hope your holiday season is cheery and bright, shared with loved ones and friends, and that the New Year brings you even more joy than this past year did.

Feed the birds…they need all the help they can get!

Winter preparation

It’s too early for us (humans) to start thinking about winter with its short days, cold temperatures, and blah landscapes. But not too early for the 13-lined ground squirrels that live out on the short grass meadows and prairies near Fort Ridgley state park. For them, it’s a race to eat enough to fatten up so they can hibernate in their deep burrows before cold weather arrives and the grasses dry up and their seeds disperse.

These small seed-eating rodents scurry around the meadows in late summer, scarfing up as much seed as they can find. Most will be consumed and turned into body fat, and some may be stored in their burrows for an early spring snack.

These ground squirrels are aptly named for the 13 dark brown and white stripes that line their backs. They can be found anywhere there are grassy meadows in the central part of the North America from Texas to southern Canada. But you’ll only find them above ground for about six months of the year. The rest of the time they are hibernating (deep sleep) in a deep burrow beneath the prairie plants.

I think these might have been young of the year — they were quite slim and small. Adults typically fatten up and go into hibernation long before their offspring do.

The coloration is apparently good camouflage for them as they run through blotchy patterns of grasses heavy with dark stripes of seed heads, and the striped pattern may help reduce their visibility to their number one predator – the Northern Harrier.

Rodents, like the ground squirrels, are one of the favorite prey in the diet of Northern Harriers. These long-winged raptors fly back and forth across grassy fields listening (not necessarily looking) for movements of small mammals as they fly. They are easily identified by the white rump patch in both the brown plumaged females and the grey plumaged males.
Northern Harriers have a round facial disk, similar to owls, that helps collect sound and transmit it to their asymmetrically placed ears so they can localize exactly where the sounds are coming from. (Photo by the Missouri Department of Conservation)
13-lined Ground Squirrels don’t seem particularly social; their burrows are not placed near each other, and they live and forage individually, unlike prairie dogs. These little squirrels seemed particularly naive and tolerated me approaching on foot, so they might well wind up in a Harrier’s gut sometime if they aren’t cautious.
It was interesting to watch how they handled the grass stems with their forepaws to harvest the seed.

Sometime in October all the ground squirrels will disappear underground to sleep away the winter cold in a state of torpor in which respiration is profoundly depressed from 100-200 breaths per minute during activity to one breath every 5 minutes in deep torpor. In addition, they usually do not eat or drink for almost all of the hibernation period, but survive in a very low metabolic state by oxidizing their fat stores.

Birds by the bay

Arriving at the peak of low tide the other evening gave us some great looks at a diversity of shorebirds foraging along the shore of Eloise Roemer bird sanctuary on Alameda Island in San Francisco Bay.

Lots of Dunlin, Willets, Curlews, Great Egrets, Pelicans, Cormorants, Avocets, — wow, what a shorebird mecca this tidal area is!
A couple of Long-billed Curlews resting on one leg…
A trio of Willets…
Double-crested Cormorants, White Pelicans, and kayakers enjoy the quiet water of this sheltered bay.
Low Cormorant on the totem pole gets the small rock, I guess.
Stilts and Yellowlegs hunting in the shallows.
Greater (i think) Yellowlegs have beautifully edged wing and back feathers when you can see them up close.
Black-necked Stilts have such delicate toes at the end of those long, pink legs.
and on the grassy side of the beach, a beautiful little Western Bluebird hunting for insects in the waning light.

“smoked” turkey?

It is often said that “variety is the spice of life”, and we recognize that almost all individuals of a single animal species exhibit some variation from one another. But sometimes that variation is markedly and drastically different — and we wonder how that variation came about and what the consequences of it are. For example, we came across a large flock of wild turkey hens at Sax-Zim bog, foraging along the side of a field, almost all of them identical to one another, except….

Notice anything different in this flock?

The turkey hen on the far right is a “smoke” color morph, a bird that lacks the normal expression of the rich browns and reds we usually see in turkey feathers.

Hen turkey in early winter exhibiting the rich spectrum of blacks, browns, grays, and reds we associate with wild turkey plumage.
The smoke morph of the wild turkey plumage is largely white with dark black and brown accents. Its lighter coloration makes it stand out in the flock, but it actually blends in better with the predominantly black and white coloration of the northern winter landscape.

How did this happen? Coloration of feathers in birds is a complex process, and can be completely different in males and females (leading to the basis for why males are so much “prettier” than females). A given stretch of genetic code for feather color in birds can be “alternatively spliced” as the pigment is being expressed in newly developing feathers, leading to wildly different outcomes between the two sexes and at different times of year in male birds or between juvenile and adult birds. But that isn’t the entire explanation for “smoke” color morphs in wild turkeys.

Normal plumage coloration of wild turkey hens includes that “smoke” look in some of their wing feathers. It would seem that the smoke morph has that type of pigment expression all over its body, instead of just in the wings.

Coloration of bird feathers is largely dependent on eumelanin pigments that produce brown, black, and gray colors and pheomelanin pigments that produce yellowish and reddish coloration. Combining amounts of these pigments like an artist does with a paint palette is what results in the variety of rich color in the plumage.

The “smoke” morph plumage lacks the full expression of a lot of browns and blacks, and it has virtually no red and yellow highlights in its plumage. The morph is very infrequently seen in the wild population, occurring in only about 1 in 100 birds on average, and thus, it is a recessive mutation of melanin expression, especially pheomelanin. More interesting is the fact that the “smoke” morph seems to occur only in females, which probably means it is a sex-linked recessive trait.

There aren’t enough of these birds in the wild population to determine whether the “smoke” morph is at a distinct disadvantage in the winter, or whether they are more or less attractive to breeding males in the spring. But this color morph has been seen by turkey hunters from Oregon to Tennessee, so the mutation must occur in most wild populations.

A different sort of Chickadee

Watching Black-capped Chickadees flitting about in the vegetation in the winter, you have to marvel at how successful they are at finding food and staying warm in such a challenging environment. I wrote a lot more about this in an earlier blog post: “Baby, it’s cold out there”.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s snowing or blowing, or 20 below, perky little Black-capped Chickadees will always be around to greet the day.

But there is another cousin of the Black-capped species that winters even farther north, in even more intemperate (in the winter) habitat: the Boreal Chickadee – named for the fact that it is a permanent resident of the coniferous boreal forests of Canada and Alaska.

They are brown-headed and rusty sided, but Boreal Chickadees have the same black chin patch as their Black-capped relatives. In the winter they usually are found in small family groups, but at the Sax-Zim bog, where Boreal Chickadees show up infrequently, the birds are often single individuals, found foraging on suet.

Boreal Chickadees spend most of their time in the spruce and balsam fir forests, where they forage for insects and spiders in the middle of the trees, rather than out on the tips of branches like the Black-capped species. When food is plentiful in the summer, Boreal Chickadees will cache food items in cracks in the bark of the underside of tree limbs where it is protected from winter snowfall, and then they secure them in place with their saliva. It is thought that these storage sites are communal property of the flock, so the birds don’t have to remember exactly where they cached individual stores. This food reserve is critical to their winter survival, in addition to seeds and hibernating insects they might find. Most of their European relatives, the titmice, and Mountain Chickadees have also been observed to use food caches as a winter food reserve.

At the Sax-Zim bog feeders, Boreal Chickadees go after the chunks of animal fat instead of the seed-rich suet cakes. Fat isn’t very nutritious but it provides them with a source of calories to metabolize overnight and keep warm.
Boreal Chickadees are a little smaller than the Black-capped species, which makes staying warm in frigid weather even more difficult.

Not much is known about the behavior and physiology of this lesser-known relative of our popular Black-capped Chickadee, especially their strategy for surviving in the intemperate environment of the boreal forest in winter. I guess not many researchers are willing to brave the conditions where Boreal Chickadees live in the winter — I certainly wouldn’t!

the long-winged mouse hunter

In the Minnesota boreal forest around Sax-Zim bog, we finally found and photographed the hawk counterpart of the Great Gray Owl (from the last post). Rough-legged Hawks are also mouse specialists, but use a completely different strategy to hunt their prey compared to the owls. Where the owls use auditory cues to localize mice under the snow, these particular hawks use visual ones, even honing in on urine trails of voles, which reflect UV light the hawks can detect. Then they perch, sit and wait, and pounce when movements in the snow indicate mouse (in this case, vole) activity.

We weren’t quite sure what we were seeing early in the morning along the roadside as we drove into the bog area. From a distance in the dim light, the hawk first resembled a juvenile Bald Eagle, then the black and white facial pattern resembled an Osprey, which would have been well out of its range for this time of year. Finally, up close we saw the typical mottled plumage of the Rough-legged Hawk.

Rough-legged Hawks are the most northerly breeding Buteo (broad-winged) hawks in North America, setting up breeding territories in the far northern Canadian and Alaskan tundra areas to prey almost exclusively on lemmings there. But they leave the tundra and migrate south to boreal areas of southern Canada and the northern U.S. that have lots of marsh and prairie expanse where they can hunt for voles and other mice where there is less snow cover.

Their name might imply that they have rough scales on their legs, but it is quite the opposite. They are one of three raptors with entirely feathered legs, like owls have — insulation that is invaluable for birds hunting in extreme cold climates like northern Minnesota. This bird, from the website (photographed by Dick Daniels) is a captive, tethered with falconry jesses, but its raised wings allow you to see the heavily feathered legs.

Rough-legged Hawks have very long wings for their body size (up to 60 inches in a large, 3.5 pound female) and they are adept at soaring effortlessly over long distances to hunt for mouse activity. Winter birds on a foraging territory in Idaho had home ranges of up to 200 square miles that they traversed over the course of several days of hunting. Researchers estimated that the bird could sustain itself in the winter on a diet of about 5 mice per day. On days when hunting success was limited, the hawks did much more perching than flying, conserving energy for the next day’s hunting attempts.

Long wings give the Rough-legged Hawk a great advantage in soaring, and just cruising over the landscape looking down for potential prey. Although their diet in the summer is largely small rodents, they might prey on rabbits or grouse when they find them in the winter. (Illustration from the Crossley ID Guide to Raptors, on Wikimedia Commons)

I won’t forget this bird — we’ve made four trips to Sax-Zim bog to see it, and finally found one right next to the road, rather than sitting a 1/2 mile away or flying hundreds of feet over our heads. Its striking plumage, feathered feet, and black and white wing patterns should make it easy to ID in the future.