Riding down the Mississippi on a chunk of ice

And the melting continues during a weekend heat wave of 50 F.  Ring-billed Gulls hitched a ride on an ice chunk as it floated down the river toward Coon Rapids dam.

Ring-billed Gulls on the Mississippi River, Minneapolis

Just “ridin’ down the river”…

Their ride had to end, though, as their ice berg approached the dam spillway.

Ring-billed Gulls on the Mississippi River, Minneapolis

Ring-billed Gulls on the Mississippi River, Minneapolis


Spring thaw

It’s officially spring, and with the change in seasons comes a change in the state of water — from solid to liquid form.

Spring floods

This is nothing compared to what is currently going on in Nebraska and Iowa, merely an inconvenience here in MN.

But open water in this frozen northland is a signal to the wildlife that another winter has passed, and it’s time to get on with the rituals of spring time: namely singing up a storm, strutting the feather finery for the ladies, and getting started with the production of the next generation.

Mallard pair

Mr. Mallard is looking ever so handsome as he courts a winsome female.

spring thaw

Mallards can be found on every little patch of open water in this early part of spring.  Soon (I hope) they will be joined by a flood of migratory ducks.

the flower picker

I remember sitting in the dark before dawn near some feeders in southeastern Arizona two years ago, just to catch a glimpse of a rare visitor to the area, the Streak-backed Oriole.  After 3 hours we did catch just a brief glimpse of “the bird” (there was only one).  Now two years later, I find they are common in this part of Mexico, and seem to like to enrich their fruit diet with a few flowers (perhaps containing nectar) plucked from various vegetation.

Streak-backed Oriole, Jalisco, Mexico

This bird was exploring the purple Jacaranda flowers, pulling them off the tree at random. Note the streaks along its back behind its head. Well-named bird!

Streak-backed Oriole, Jalisco, Mexico

Another oriole attacked the much larger flower of a banana plant. Perhaps it was attracted to the large red sheath at the base of the banana bunches.

Streak-backed Oriole, Jalisco, Mexico

The bird pecked at several places on the flower, but didn’t seem to find much.

Streak-backed Oriole, Jalisco, Mexico

And off he went…with some part of the plant grasped in his toes.

Like most Orioles, males of the Streak-backed variety are the most colorful, with females being considerably duller and less orange.  However, the species ranges from northern Mexico (occasionally venturing into southern Arizona) where the two sexes are completely different in color, through most of Central America, where the two sexes become more and more similar in coloration going south.

Why would there be such a difference between coloration of females from the northern vs southern extent of their range?

Apparently, Streak-backed Orioles maintain permanent territories year-round in the southern part of their range, where the bright coloration of the females helps territory defense.  In more northerly areas, the orioles maintain only a breeding territory, and may undergo short migrations away during the non-breeding season!

Red birds of Monte Coxala

The Monte Coxala resort where we are housed for our pickleball camp has some beautiful gardens, and where there are flowers, there are usually birds.  And this area has some brilliant red birds, in particular.

House Finch, San Juan Cosalà, Jalisco, Mexico

I’ve never seen House Finches this red, but the Mexican variety really makes the Minnesota variety look dull.

House Finches though quite beautiful here, are eclipsed by the numerous Vermillion Flycatchers that frequent the gardens.

Vermillion Flycatcher, San Juan Cosalà, Jalisco, Mexico

About the same size as the House Finches, but so much more colorful.

Vermillion Flycatcher, San Juan Cosalà, Jalisco, Mexico

Striking bird!

Stark! Cold! Lifeless (almost).

That was the North Shore of Lake Superior this weekend.  So much wind they closed the lifts at Lutsen mountain, and the outer doors of our motel blew right off their track.

Lake Superior, Tofte, MN

There are some interesting ice formations on the frozen part of the lake.

Wind and cold temperatures make for a stark landscape.  It’s more attractive with some people in it — cold hikers!

Lake Superior, Tofte, MN

Lake Superior, Tofte, MN

Lots of frozen waterfalls along the cliff walls of the lake.

Lake Superior, Tofte, MN

Glittering shards of ice litter the shoreline of the lake.

American crow

Crows and ravens always seem to be out hunting for food regardless of weather extremes.

crows feeding on roadkill

Most often the animals you might see are feasting on roadkilled deer.  Larger predators like wolves and coyotes arrive first, then eagles, ravens, and crows. We saw several of these feeding sites along the north shore highway.  Image from a Storyblocks Video. https://www.videoblocks.com/video/common-raven-and-some-carrion-crows-feeding-on-carcasses-ystozgp 

Just being out in this environment for a couple of hours at a time makes me marvel at the abilities of animals to survive in it.

Time for some real winter weather

Because it’s not cold or snowy enough in the Twin Cities (hah!), we drove north for a weekend of skiing in a blizzard in the hills above the north shore of Lake Superior.

Ice houses on Lake Superior in Duluth

Ice houses on Lake Superior in Duluth.  Local news says 75% of Lake Superior is frozen.  Wave and wind action breaks up ice and pushes it to shore, leaving huge crystal shards there.

Lake Superior north shore highway, MN

At sunset along the north shore highway.  We didn’t know this would be the nicest of the 3 days of the weekend trip.

Cross-country skiing, Sugar Bush, Tofte, MN

Temperatures in the 20s, not much wind, but a steady snowfall in our faces as we skied.

But then the blizzard began, and conditions were so much worse for outdoor activity.  I tried to photograph the lake shore, walking through hip-deep snow drifts, against high velocity winds.  Ugh, how do people live here in the winter?

Lake Superior ice at Tofte, MN

Lake ice under pressure from ice being pushed to shore turns blue.

Lake Superior ice at Todte, MN

This landscape can be so photogenic, but not really in a blizzard…

Frivolous fun

You can only blog about our white on white environment here in Minnesota for so long before it becomes quite boring.  Let me just say that I think my husband and I moved over a ton (literally, I calculated the weight of the cubic feet of snow removed at 2400 lbs) of the white stuff from walks and deck after the 10+ inch dump on Wednesday.  That was NOT the frivolous fun; playing with some recent photos using SnapSeed photo software was.

I started with a forest trail I photographed in Oakland, CA, and added some of the critters I have photographed in the backyard here in MN.

A forest trail, Oakland CA

The starting point of the fantasy. I remember this part of the trail being far prettier and more interesting than it appears in camera.

Judicious cropping, removing ugly skinny tree from dead center of the photo, lightening and warming up the image, and then adding a few forest friends, and voilà, a more pleasing (I hope) image to look at.

Storybook forest composite image

This scene reminds me of a page from a fairy tale about Bambi and friends.

of course it’s fake, but just frivolous fun with fotos…

How far can a gray squirrel jump?

If you google that question, you’ll find that gray squirrels can jump at least 4 feet straight up in the air, and at least 9 feet horizontally.  I’ve had a peanut feeder hanging in the buckeye tree about 7 feet from the trunk of the tree all winter, and just today a gray squirrel finally figured out how to get to the feeder. (Shot through the window looking into the afternoon sun with a terrible reflection.)

Gray squirrel jumping to a peanut feeder

This is a composite of two attempts wth the same flight path.  My camera could only capture two images per jump.  Note how this trajectory gets the squirrel to the feeder instead of colliding with the protective dome.  Click on the image to enlarge it to full screen.

Gray squirrel jumping to a peanut feeder

But this is where this particular leap took the squirrel before I scared it off.

The momentum of the landing creates a violent swing in the feeder, which can dislodge the squirrel that might be just hanging on with its toes.

Gray squirrel jumping to a peanut feeder

This might be categorized hanging on by your (toe)nails.

After several failed attempts involving collisions with the plastic dome over the feeder,

Gray squirrel jumping to a peanut feeder

Misjudged the landing on this attempt…

the squirrel successfully launched itself from just the right height on the tree trunk, with just the right trajectory arc, to land most of its body on the side of the feeder.

Athletic and smart, that’s the gray squirrel key to success.

Double (and triple) exposure

Setting my camera up at the window opposite the bird feeder and shooting at its fastest rate (10 frames per second) allowed me to capture birds in motion flying to and from the feeder.  The House Finches were leisurely about their arrivals and departures, so combining images using SnapSeed photo development software nicely illustrated the flight mechanics involved in a landing in one male House Finch.

Male House Finch landing on a feeder

Same bird, multiple exposures overlain on one image…3 exposures = approx. 0.3 seconds for this particular landing. Note brakes (wings outstretched) applied at the very end of landing.

White-breasted Nuthatches are not only bigger birds (thus taking up more space in my camera’s limited field of view), but came in much faster and departed much more quickly than the finches.

White-breasted Nuthatch landing on a feeder

Not a particularly good landing. It looks like the bird landed a little short of upright, but then they seem to prefer being upside down most of the time anyway. Wings flared much earlier than the finches did to slow their entry speed.

White-breasted Nuthatch leaving a feeder

Got the peanut, and then poof! the Nuthatch is out of the frame in less than 0.2 seconds.

But those little Chickadees are really tough to capture.  They flew in quickly, grabbed a seed or a peanut and departed just as quickly.  I rarely got more than one image of the same bird on approach to the feeder, which meant they were entering the camera’s field of view in less than 0.1 second.

Black-capped Chickadee arriving at a feeder

The Chickadee is using its wings to slow its approach much earlier than the House Finch did, a good indication of the speed with which they move toward the feeder.

Black-capped Chickadee leaving a feeder

And off the Chickadee goes with its treasure…quickly

I guess if you’re little and vulnerable, you need to be quick. And Chickadees definitely are that, quicker than my eye can follow.