Snow Goose bonanza

Snow Geese may be overtaking the world; well, at least their Arctic breeding grounds.  And when they invade their winter headquarters, they dominate that landscape as well.  We thought there must be a thick layer of salt along the edge of the Rio Grande flood plain when we looked across the expanse of blue water.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

That’s not a line of salt crystals along the shoreline, it’s a dense pack of Snow Geese!  Ruddy Ducks are in the foreground.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

High densities of Snow Geese congregate in their select winter headquarters in the U.S. and eastern coast of Mexico.

There must have been tens of thousands of these medium sized geese, crowded together in the shallow water of the Rio Grande. They are described as “voracious herbivores”, eating any and all parts of a plant, ripping up roots and all, or just shearing off the tops of grasses, sedges, and other aquatic plants.  Digested food passes through their gut in just a couple of hours, so just imagine how much goose poop is going into this section of the river!  Their voracious foraging is what has been decimating their tundra breeding grounds, as more and more geeese arrive each year to raise their chicks.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Snow Geese come in two color phases: white- and dark-bodied. The dark form was once believed to be a separate species, called the Blue Goose.  

Color is controlled by a single gene, but the dark allele is dominant over the white variant (actually dark is Incompletely dominant, to be technically correct).  So, this raises the very obvious question:  if dark color is dominant, why are there so many white Snow Geese?

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

The amount of color is variable, depending on whether the individual has one or two dark alleles.  Of the 3 most prominent birds in this photo, the one on the right has no dark alleles, the one in the middle might have two dark alleles, and the one on the left with less dark coloration might have one dark and one light allele.

The Snow Geese put on quite a display for us, with massive numbers of them taking off, circling in front of us, and then settling back on the pond. You have to marvel at their ability to fly in such close quarters without running into each other.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Take-off…

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Coming closer…

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Right in front of us….

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Overhead!

What a spectacle!

Sunset at Bosque del Apache

Bosque del Apache (literally “woods of the Apache”) is a 3800 acre wildlife refuge in the floodplain of the Rio Grande River in southern New Mexico that was set aside in the late 1930s as a wintering spot for waterfowl.

Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

One can look down on the flood plain of the Rio Grande River from an overlook a couple of miles away.  We had no idea how many thousands of birds were concentrated there.

And thousands of birds do congregate here from November to March. Snow Geese by the tens of thousands (more on them later), dozens of ducks of all kinds, and of course, the one we had come to see, hundreds, if not thousands of Sandhill Cranes.  Fortunately we arrived just as the light was turning golden, and developing into a beautiful sunset. (Click on the photos below to view them full screen and use the back arrow to return to the blog.)

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

The Snow Geese don’t seem to mind that Sandhill Cranes walk through and over them.

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Hundreds of birds congregated in a shallow lake right next to the road through the refuge, completely unperturbed by all the photographers lined up on the shore about 100 feet away.

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

As is usually the case with Sandhill Cranes, they continually vocalize as new birds fly in, landing often in the middle of a clump of others.

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

The beautiful Sonoran desert

I love the varied topography and vegetation of the Tucson area, and especially up in the foothills of the Catalina mountains on the road to Oracle (what a great name). Here are some views of the mountain landscape from Catalina State Park at sunset today.

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ

Birds in the living desert

On our way back now to Minnesota, staying as far south for warmth and sunshine as we can, we found a very nice exhibit of Sonoran desert plants and animals at the Living Desert Zoo and botanic garden in Palm Desert, Southern California.  All the typical animals were on display, as well as the many types and forms of desert adapted plants, which kept us busy walking the trails of this 1000 acre preserve for several hours.

Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Vegetation varied between very dry cacti gardens, somewhat wetter acacia and palo verde forests, and palm oases.

Unfortunately, it was a chilly, overcast morning, and the wildlife was sparse, very quiet, and somewhat lethargic.

Verdin, Palm Desert, CA

Chilly weather doesn’t slow down busy little insectivores, like Verdins, though.  Read more about these tiny, but highly successful desert birds at https://bybio.wordpress.com/2016/11/07/the-sonoran-desert-chickadee/

Roadrunner, Palm Desert, CA

The Roadrunner looked miserable, fluffing its meager feathers out and hunching up to conserve warmth. When Roadrunners get cold, they like to bask in the sun, spreading their back feathers to let the sun shine directly on the black skin on their backs. Alas, no sun today!

Mockingbird, Palm Desert, CA

Even the Mockingbird looked cold, and was reluctant to move, even when we crept up quite close.

juvenile White-crowned Sparrow

Small flocks of juvenile (like this bird) and adult White-crowned Sparrows foraged for seeds beneath the cacti.

Phainopepla

It’s always fun to find the “black cardinals” in the tree tops. On a gray day like this one, all you can usually see is a silhouette. A brief glimpse of the sun helped light up this male.  Phainopepla are members of the silly flycatcher family (i.e., not a cardinal at all) and are usually found in desert oases in the tropics.  The northern edge of their range extends into the Central Valley of California.

Male Costa’s Hummingbird

The great variety of flowering perennials present in the Living Desert should have attracted quite a few hummingbirds. Curators of the park thought it might be too cold for them to be out today.  We found this one bright male Costa’s Hummer at a nectar feeder.

Female Costa’s Hummingbird

Meanwhile, a female Costas’s Hummingbird fed on the nectar of tiny purple flowers of a shrubby mint.

“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”

 

Pelicans on the pond

We spent a lovely sunny afternoon at Ano Nuevo state park watching the elephant seals, but on the way to marvel at these gigantic beasts, we passed a pond with some Brown Pelicans, flying from fresh water to the nearby ocean.  It was too good an opportunity to photograph these majestic flyers to pass up.

Brown Pelicans at Ano Nuevo state park, CA

It’s hard to see the pelicans flying up from the pond.  How many do you see.

Brown Pelicans at Ano Nuevo state park, CA Brown Pelicans at Ano Nuevo state park, CA Brown Pelicans at Ano Nuevo state park, CA Brown Pelicans at Ano Nuevo state park, CA Brown Pelicans at Ano Nuevo state park, CA

Brown Pelicans at Ano Nuevo state park, CA

The coastline at Ano Nuevo state park

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

Success!

Crossing America — Nevada

From Elko to Winnemucca along I-80, we cruise up and down the mountains and valleys that run like long fingers north to south.  A blanket of snow and scattered clouds filtering the early morning light make this usually monotonous landscape very photogenic.

I-80 from Elko to Winnemucca, NV

The mountain passes are over 6000 feet, the valley floors are dominated by sagebrush in this high desert.

I-80 from Elko to Winnemucca, NV

The valleys are typically self-draining (rather than running out to the Pacific ocean) making the soil unsuitable for much plant life except those that are salt-tolerant.

I-80 from Elko to Winnemucca, NV

Mountain peaks and canyons often have more lush vegetation, even pine forests, and creeks running from them may have fish and a variety of bird and mammal life.  The valley floors are a mecca for insectivorous lizards and a few adventurous birds and small mammals.

I-80 from Elko to Winnemucca, NV

Nevada means snow-covered, as the landscape exhibits in this winter scene, but most of the Great Basin here is in the rain-shadow of the Sierra mountains of California, and thus the annual precipitation is less than 10 inches.

I-80 from Elko to Winnemucca, NV

Towns are few and far between, often located at the base of some scenic peak, rather than out on the valley floor.

I-80 from Elko to Winnemucca, NV

Broiling hot in the summer and chilling in the winter, this is a place for really hearty people to live.

West of Winnemucca, the valley basins are more expansive, merging into one gigantic bowl, the Great Basin sink. Water from rivers draining the eastern side of the Sierra mountains eventually makes its way into the Great Basin, some of it collecting in temporary or even permanent lakes.  This is the only source of water for agriculture in western Nevada.

and now we will climb the eastern side of the Sierras, hopefully in advance of the giant snowstorm headed there.

Crossing America — Utah

It’s a short drive down the Lincoln Highway from Evanston, WY to Salt Lake City, and what a scenic drive through a gorgeous red canyon it is.

Lincoln Highway to Salt Lake City, UT

What could be prettier than white snow, red cliffs, and juniper and sage?

Lincoln Highway to Salt Lake City, UT

As we descend from the higher elevation Wyoming plateau, the cliffs get higher, and the topography more rugged.

Lincoln Highway to Salt Lake City, UT

Canyons with aspen and cottonwood meander back into the niches between cliffs. This must be glorious in the fall.

The Lincoln Highway was one of the earliest transcontinental routes for car travel from New Jersey to California, traversing 13 states.  Now that would be a real cross section of America, instead of this abbreviated picture I’m presenting here.

Having driven through sparkling, crystal clear landscapes from western most Wyoming, I had big expectations of the sight that would greet us as we broke through the cliffs into the Great Salt Lake flats.  But, a dense inversion layer of  smog greeted us in Salt Lake City, and instead of mountains, city, and lake landscape, we saw this.

Great Salt Lake smog

Ugh! I think there are supposed to be mountains on Antelope and Stansbury Islands visible from the southern lake shore as we drive along I-80.

If I have matched up google images correctly with our stop for lunch on the southern shore of the lake, it should have looked something like this.

Great Salt Lake, Salt Lake Tours

A summer time view, when the air is cleaner and clearer. Courtesy of Salt Lake Tours

But the best view of this amazing body of water was still ahead of us at the  Bonneville salt flat, where the salt-laden earth has dried into a hardened concrete and land speed records are set (currently 622 mph in a rocket-powered vehicle).  Imagine the g-forces the driver of that car withstands as he rockets (literally) down the 10 mile speedway.

Bonneville Salt Flat, Great Salt Lake, UT

I had to use a lot of dehaze filter to cut through the thick layer of smoky, foggy air. The reflection of the distant mountains is best seen when the water is just a few inches deep. When this area dries up in the summer, it will be a completely flat and extremely hard surface.

The drive through the rest of the salt desert went by quickly, and soon we were greeted by Wendover Will at the Nevada border.  My husband claims he always looked forward to seeing cowboy Will greet them on their trips from California to Nebraska in the summer.  It’s good to know that some things don’t change over 50-60 years in the west.

Wendover Will on the border of Nevada and Utah