Utah’s glorious national parks: Canyonlands

Utah’s national parks are all different from one another, and all are spectacular.  I’ll write more about them some other time, but for now, just enjoy the amazing geological wonders of Canyonlands.

Admiring the vista at Canyonlands National Park, Mesa Arch

The view being admired in the previous photo…

The iconic Mesa arch, you’ve probably seen as a screen saver or wallpaper for your computer monitor, although not with the cute grandkids posed there.

The view from the side of Mesa Arch looking at those spires that catch the sunrise in most of the wallpaper photos.

The most abundant wildlife we saw in Canyonlands — Ravens.

Westward ho — Flaming Gorge and dinosaurs!

Working our way west from Fort Robinson across Wyoming to Dinosaur National Monument in northeastern Utah, we passed through Rock Springs, WY, where a day later they would hold the national high school rodeo (darn, we’re hooked on rodeos now, too!).

Somewhere in Wyoming, land of big skies!

We made a brief stop at Flaming Gorge reservoir and dam on the Green River  at the border of Wyoming and Utah.  So named by John Wesley Powell when he explored this area, but the red canyon he saw is no longer visible.

Flaming Gorge dam submerged four canyons of the green River system to create a huge lake and hydroelectric power generation.  It doesn’t look flaming because the red canyon for which this part of the river was named lies under water about 20 miles upstream.

And on to Dinosaur National Monument on the border of Colorado and northeastern Utah, where kids can delight in seeing an actual dinosaur excavation site.

Allosaurus was one of the predatory dinosaurus recovered from the Morrison formation rocks in this area, dating to the Jurassic period.

Jurassic period fossils of large-bodied herbivores and carnivores, still in situ, just as they were excavated from nearby quarries.

You can use the Visitor Center’s video software to find specific species in the rock wall. Partial skeletons of herbivores were mixed with carnivores in the same layer.

Seeing how large just one leg bone of a sauropod dino was (long-necked, long-bodied herbivores) impressed my granddaughter.

We had a beautiful campsite campsite on the Green River near Dinosaur National Monument.

Morrison formation rocks near Dinosaur National Monument

The Green River is really green and quite silty, but beautiful as it passes by huge cliffs at sunset.

The grandkids discovered petroglyphs in one of the cliff walls on our sunset drive in the Green River canyons.

Fort Robinson rodeo!

We’re touring the Great Plains on our way west to California, camping along the way.  First stop Chamberlain, South Dakota, followed by Fort Robinson on the boundary of the sand hills of western Nebraska.  The grandkids enjoyed a lot of swimming, some tubing, some horseback riding to the top of the buttes, and an evening rodeo, complete with calf roping.  It was a big hit.

Two mounted riders chase a calf that has a slight head start; one rider is responsible for roping the head and the other has to tackle the feet of this charging animal.

This  event calls for coordination between riders, as well as between horse and rider.  This was a father-daughter team.

Got the calf by the head, now to rope its feet.

Communication between horse and rider is impressive. The horse knows it has to keep that rope tight.

This last event looked decidedly unhealthy: a child jumps on a steer hide and is dragged behind a horse to the end of the arena, and fastest time wins. Talk about eating dust!

a wildflower experiment

I got tired of trying to grow vegetables in my backyard garden space year after year, only to have them wilt with insect infestations, or get some virus that turned the leaves brown.  And finally at summer’s end near optimal harvest time, the garden was shaded by 2 p.m., because the maximum altitude of the sun’s arc in the sky in late August was below the tops of the trees.

So I converted my vegetable garden to a wildflower garden, with a wildflower mix from a company that promised lots of native plants from my region.  I dispersed the seed generously, watered it faithfully, and waited for weeks while it looked like I was growing nothing but weeds.  As an added bonus, I thought a bevy of flowers would attract more butterflies and bees to my backyard (which is what the wildflower packet promised).

Finally, the wildflower seed mix is starting to bloom behind the giant hyssop.

It’s a lush mix of quite a variety of plants, and there probably are a good number of my native weeds  in there too.

But unfortunately, I don’t recognize many of the flowers in this mix, which leads me to wonder if they are really from this region of the country.  For example, a few  California Poppies have appeared, and I’m sure they are not native to MN.

I would love to see golden poppies every year in my garden, but I doubt they can withstand the Minnesota winter.

They are quite pretty, but I’m disappointed that these flowers seem to be non-natives that will not attract the insects that my bird friends depend on during the summer.

What is this? It’s like nothing I’ve seen around here before.

Or this? A green sweat bee made a brief stop on this flower, looking for pollen perhaps.

What might this be, some kind of pink wallflower relative?

Or these, pretty little blue and white flowers? No insects anywhere around them.

I’m going to call this a failed experiment, an important failure because it highlights something that should be an on-going concern of all avid gardeners.  And that is this:  if we continue to replace the native vegetation in our yards with non-native species, insects that depend on native perennial and annual vegetation will face a food desert.  They don’t have the biochemistry to cope with the plant defenses of introduced non-natives, so they produce fewer or no offspring in a garden of non-native plants.  And the birds that depend on those insects to feed their own young similarly suffer the consequences of the food desert.

So, plant more native species and keep those insects happy!

Monarch butterflies love our native Swamp Milkweed for its nectar as well as a source of food for their larvae.

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.

Summer blooms

Finally, the flowers have begun to make an appearance after a long, cool spring.  It’s past mid-summer, but the peonies have just finished (very late) and the summer bloomers are finally budding out.

Black-eyed Susan flowers are just barely open.

The common milkweed flowers fill the air with their perfume, but these were some of the very few open, and no bees were buzzing around the plants.

Monarch butterflies should enjoy this large patch of milkweed when the flowers finally open.

A milkweed beetle has found the plants, though. They are brightly colored as a warning to predators that they are full of the milkweed’s poisonous chemicals.

The bright orange flowers of butterfly weed should attract pollinators as well.

Blue Flag Iris was blooming in the cattail marsh, where its brilliant blue-violet flowers stand out in all the green. It seems to attract more flies than bees today, probably some species of hover fly that lands on those guide stripes on the petal and walk right into the inner chamber for their nectar reward.

A young painted turtle, perhaps hatched out last summer, meandered slowly through the marsh, nibbling along its way.

Ah, summer, you’re much too short, but come with such beauty.

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.

the Margined Calligrapher

With a fancy name like Margined Calligrapher, you would never guess I was talking about a little flower fly, less than a half inch long.  But this minute insect is one of the most numerous ones in your garden right now.

Minuscule flower flies are dwarfed by even the tiny fleabane flowers whose pollen they may be consuming.

The “margined” part of its name derives from the yellow line that outlines the pattern on its abdomen.  This tiny female, identified by the gap between her eyes, is feeding on peony pollen.

Flower flies derive their name from their ubiquitous presence on flower heads as the adults seek nectar and pollen, but they are also called hover flies for their habit of hovering in mid-air, or Syrphid flies because they belong to that large subfamily.

A male calligrapher fly, identified by eyes adjacent to one another, pauses on a peony petal, perhaps searching for a female.

Their yellow and black coloration mimics that of bees, and perhaps they get some protection from predation from that mimicry, but they are far smaller than even the smallest honeybees, they have only one pair of wings, not two as all bees do, and they have short, stubby antennae, again unlike the longer ropey antennae of bees.

It’s mating time for these flies which have recently emerged from a long winter hibernation as adults or mature larvae. Females will lay a single egg on leaves of a plant that is infested with aphids, scale insects, or thrips which the larvae will then consume as they grow.

Although the eye colors of the two sexes look different in the photo, they really aren’t. Compare the male (on top) eye color in this photo to the one above.

Syrphid larva consuming an aphid. Photo from Ohioline.osu.edu, by David Cappaert.

So, not only do adult flower flies perform a pollinating service for the flowers in your garden, their carnivorous larvae perform a check on the pests (like aphids) that attack your garden plants!

This particular species of flower fly, Toxomerus marginatus, can be found almost everywhere in the U.S. except mountainous regions and Alaska, and has even made it to Hawaii.  There are numerous Toxomerus species, each with a distinctive pattern of yellow and black on the abdomen, so if you see these bee mimics in your garden and wonder what they are, here’s a handy reference page (with photos) of some of the more common U.S. species,

Eastern Calligrapher, from iNaturalist.org


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.