Posts tagged ‘Minnesota’

Lizards in Minnesota? The well-named Six-lined Racerunner

July 20, 2020

Lizards in Minnesota? We have three species that are found in the state: Prairie Skink (Plestiodon septentrionalis) across all of MN except northeast and north central, Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) found in extreme southeast MN and along the MN River Valley, and my target for the day—Six-lined Racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineata), which is almost exclusively found in the southeast counties bordering the Mississippi River.

Six-lined Racerunner? Yes, this lizard is incredibly speedy (it can run up to 18MPH!) and it has six greenish-yellow stripes…three running down each side of its body (with a darker middle stripe…so it could technically be called the “Seven-lined Racerunner” but nobody asked me).

And this lizard needs that kind of speed to ambush grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, flies and other insects who can be quite quick to take wing at the first hint of danger.

Range of Six-lined Racerunner in the U.S (from NatureServe.org)

Thanks to a tip from a herpetologist friend I searched this spot along the Mississippi River in Houston County, Minnesota (the southeastern most county in MN). He said to only go on a sunny and very warm day since these guys are only active in the heat of midday. In fact, their ideal air temperature for activity is 93 degrees F! (Fitch, 1958). They won’t even come out of burrows on cool days (below 72?). Mid May is when they emerge and they go back underground for the winter in late August.

Check out the unique scales on the Six-lined Racerunner’s tail. They can “drop” their tail if in danger, or if a predator grabs them by the tail, but it is much more unusual than with the skinks.

My first “sighting” was just a line of grass moving as an unseen lizard raced away from me. The site was sandy with a surprising amount of forb cover. I would have thought I’d find them in more open sandy country. A line of jumbled rocks is where they would scurry to for cover.

After about two hours, and about six lizards speeding away from me to the shelter of the rocks, I finally found a Racerunner that wasn’t racing. I was able to sloooowly creep towards him (see below on how I knew his gender) and get a few shots through the grasses.

The blue throat/chin and lime green face tells me that this is a male who is still in breeding “plumage.”

Much of this information about the natural history of Minnesota’s herps was gleaned from Moriarty and Hall’s excellent Amphibians & Reptiles of Minnesota (University of Minnesota Press, 2014). You can buy it here. Or purchase from Amazon here.

In this Blog Post from summer 2019, I searched for the Five-lined Skink along the rocky landscape of the Minnesota River Valley, but instead found a juvenile Prairie Skink.

Colossal Wildflowers of the Mississippi River backwaters: Part 1—Houston County, MN

July 20, 2020

When the description of a wildflower uses feet instead of inches, you know you have a colossal plant! And at this one spot on the backwaters of the Mississippi River in Houston County, Minnesota I found 3 stands of blossoming behemoths! Where am I? The Amazon?

Backwaters of the Mississippi River above the Reno, Minnesota dike (Reno Landing)

I was meandering back from Iowa where I had dropped off the boys for a week of “Nana Camp” at Bridget’s mom’s. The night before I camped at Minnesota’s Beaver Creek Valley State Park. It is in Houston County which is the southeasternmost county in the state. This is in the “driftless” region, an area that was missed by all of the last glaciers of the Ice Age and retains its high hills, meandering creeks, coulees and valleys. It is an area pockmarked with limestone caves in the karst topography. The hardwood forests have more in common with the southern midwest than the rest of Minnesota. As a result there is a plethora of unique species to Minnesota in this region.

I stopped at the Reno Landing on the Mississippi River to explore the dike and look for Minnesota’s rarest lizard (future blogpost!) when I noticed my first “mega-flower.”

The massive size of the flower is hard to comprehend without something to compare it to. But unfortunately I didn’t have my kayak with so I couldn’t get near the flowers.

It was the huge blossom of the American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea). The flower itself can be as big as your head (4 to 8 inches across) and the leaves dwarf the flowers at one to two feet across!

At first I wasn’t even sure this was a native plant, but a quick check of my Minnesota Wildflowers app on my iPhone confirmed that it is indeed Minnesota’s largest native wildflower. This was Lifer Number 1 (a species I had never seen in my life before).

The American Lotus is only found along backwaters of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers and a few inland lakes (Lake Minnetonka) in Minnesota. And their populations seem to be ephemeral, and not blooming every year.

I wish I would have brought my kayak to actually get up close and personal with these aquatic mammoths. Next summer!

I then spotted a flower I had never seen before. Lifer Number 2. I didn’t even know where to start looking in my Peterson Field Guide nor my iPhone app to identify this monster. It emerged in a cluster from the backwaters to a height of three feet. Atop a stalk was a showy umbell of stunning magenta blossoms with 6 petals (or was it 3 sepals and 3 petals?) maybe half a foot across.

Blossoms of Flowering-Rush (Butomus umbellatus) are held in an umbel of stalks.

Once I got home, my copy of Field Guide to Wisconsin Streams came to the rescue; the plant was Flowering-Rush (Butomus umbellatus), a non-native species that is in the Flowering-Rush family (Butomaceae)

Flowering-Rush (Butomus umbellatus)
Flowering-Rush (Butomus umbellatus)

Then on the way out I spotted a huge and robust stand of Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata). Hundreds of purple-blossomed spikes stood a couple feet above the dense tangle of large arrowhead-shaped leaves.

Dense stand of the large and robust Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata)
The spike of blossoms of Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata)

In the next post I will show a few photos of the lizard I found at this site.

500-mile daytrip Birding Minnesota June 12: Egret Rookery, Avocets, Western Grebes: Bird Photography

A LONG 500-mile day trip birding in west central Minnesota. Join me on this “Armchair birding tour” as I photograph American Avocets at the North Ottawa Impoundment (find a rare Snowy Egret), get super slow-motion video of Chimney Swifts in flight in downtown Osakis, shoot Western Grebes on Lake Osakis, and visit a Great Egret/Black-crowned Night-Heron/Double-crested Cormorant colony at Adam’s Park/Grotto Lake in Fergus Falls.

I also discover that a NASA astronaut was born and raised in tiny Vining, Minnesota (pop. 63), which is also the home of the world’s largest clothespin.

Slow-motion video with the Panasonic GH5 and Sigma 50-500mm lens.

Virtually Live 8 “The Triathlon” episode: June 2, 2020

This is the “triathlon” edition of Virtually Live. Sparky kayaks, fat bikes and even walks a little in the Sax-Zim Bog during this June 2nd episode. We begin the field trip by kayaking from Stone Lake to East Stone Lake and find one of our latest migrants, the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (amongst many other cool finds), then fat bike to the Whiteface River and discover some unique birds and flowers in the floodplain forest on a parcel that we are in the process of purchasing. A cooperative Mourning Warbler rounds out our adventure.

Virtually Live “Waffles & Warblers” field trip 7: Sax-Zim Bog May 24, 2020

It’s the Virtually Live edition of Waffles & Warblers! Except Sparky has Grape Nuts for breakfast instead. Twelve species of colorful warblers are found in the Sax-Zim Bog…and all are on breeding territory. Golden-winged Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Mourning Warbler, and more. Plus Bobolink heaven along Arkola Road. And Sparky makes an announcement about a new video series. Will this be the last Virtually Live birding field trip? Stay tuned!

Virtually Live 6 Birding Field Trip to the Sax-Zim Bog; May 19, 2020

Number six! I enjoy doing these …especially the birding! Not so much fun to come home and download 4 memory cards (two cameras, sound recorder, Go Pro) and then edit 200 clips into a 15-20 minute video before bed. Long day! (I have to upload to Youtube overnight due to our family usage of WiFi during the day).

Highlights of this trip include a hunting Great Gray Owl, a dirt-eating Porcupine, breeding White-winged Crossbills, juvenile Canada jays and 10 species of warblers including Magnolia, Northern Waterthrush, Black and white Warbler, tour of the new MOTUS tower and more. Sponsored by Friends of Sax-Zim Bog.

Birding with Sparky 3: Virtually Live from Sax-Zim Bog: April 28, 2020

Tuesday, April 28, 2020.
Join Executive Director Sparky Stensaas on a 5 hour birding, photography, video tour in northeastern Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog. We visit Nichols Lake, the Warren Woessner Bog Boardwalk, Admiral Road willow flats and the Welcome Center. Wild Turkeys in full display, slow motion video of Wilson’s Snipe doing their aerial courtship display, Porcupine eating willow catkins.

NOTE: If you view in highest possible format, you can actually see the stiff outer tail feathers of the Wilson’s Snipe vibrating. The air rushing through these specially adapted feathers is what creates the “winnowing” aerial courtship display sound.

“Moosey & Sprucey” Trip to the Superior National Forest: Shooting with Sparky episode

Come along on a wildlife photography and video day trip in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest (April 17, 2020). This Shooting with Sparky episode takes you along as I search for Moose and displaying Spruce Grouse. Guest appearances by drumming Ruffed Grouse, Red Crossbills, Saw-whet Owl, Red-tailed Hawk, Hairy Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Trailing Arbutus and more. Enjoy this virtual field trip!

Top Ten Mammal photos 2019

Here are my favorite mammal photos taken in 2019. It was a pretty good year for locating and photographing the “four-leggeds.”

Prairie Dogs (Badlands National Park, South Dakota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; f5.6 at 1/640 second; ISO 100; -0.33 ev; tripod]

I call this the “Group Back Rub.” This is from October when Ryan and I were enroute to Yellowstone. I took this while we were waiting for a Burrowing Owl to poke its head out of a prairie dog hole. Let’s just say that Ryan doesn’t appreciate prairie dogs or their high level of cuteness. If its his turn to drive, I really have to plead for him to stop for a prairie dog colony. I love photographing them and their antics.

Bobcat (Sax-Zim Bog)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; f5.6 at 1/250 second; Flash; ISO 640; -+1.0 ev; hand-held braced on car door]

Due to the deep snows and cold temps of the winter of 2018-19, many critters had a tough time finding food. At least 9 Bobcats were seen in the Sax-Zim Bog including a mom with 2 young. This was likely one of the young who camped out at a road-killed deer (note ribs in background). Bobcats are gorgeous and cute at the same time. A flash helped make this image Uber-sharp on a heavy overcast day.

Bison in snowstorm (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)

This is the start of the snowstorm that closed Yellowstone down for 36 hours at the start of our time in the park. These three ruled the road between Madison and West Yellowstone.

Ermine (Short-tailed Weasel) at Warren Woessner Bog Boardwalk (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/2000 at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held]

While guiding a group from Outward Bound along the Warren Woessner Bog Boardwalk at the Warren Nelson Memorial Bog, this little guy popped out of a snow burrow and immediately emerged from a nearby hole. They are unbelievably fast critters! They hunt voles in their subnivean tunnels (their long thin body shape helps in this pursuit) but also feed on carcasses.

Ermine is the name for Least Weasel, Long-tailed Weasel and Short-tailed Weasel when in their winter white coat (this is a Short-tailed Weasel).

He stayed still for approximately 1.5 seconds but I was able to snap off a couple shots. It will be in the MN Conservation Volunteer magazine next month.

Baboon baby and mom at San Diego Zoo

Something a bit different…an image from a zoo of a mama Baboon gently grooming her baby. Just darn cute!

Red Fox hunting a snowy field (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/1250 at f6.3; ISO 500; +0.33ev; hand-held]

This is a real “mammal in the landscape” photo. But I think it works because of the Red Fox looks sharp with the red of the willows, both of which contrast with the white of the symmetrical aspens.

Mule Deer (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM; 1/1000 second at f5.6; ISO 1000; hand-held]

Arriving in Teddy Roosevelt National Park we were greeted with this young Mule Deer buck browsing on some roadside shrubs. An early October snowstorm provided the backdrop.

Canada Lynx (Superior National Forest, Minnesota)
[single video frame plucked from 4K video]

Not a great photo…so why is it included here? Because it was the first Canada Lynx I’ve seen in the daylight…and I got some images! I lucked into this mellow cat up in the Superior National Forest in late March and got to spend a few minutes with it as it sauntered through the forest, then sat for a while before moving on in its never-ending search for Snowshoe Hares.

Read more and see the video HERE

Grizzly eating Rose hips (Wyoming)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6L USM lens; 1/250 second at f5.6; ISO 6400; hand-held]

Sometimes trying to predict where a wild animal might intersect with our own path pays off. We saw this Grizzly making its way across the North Fork of the Shoshone River just outside Yellowstone. She went into the woods so we moved up the road to a pullout and waited. And, believe it or not, she came out of the woods and headed in our direction. But it was not us she wanted to investigate, but rather a stand of Wild Rose whose hips were in full ripeness. It was a joy to watch her delicately plucking the fruits from the bush a couple at a time. Not once did she look in our direction, and when she was filled, she moved off.

Read more of this story HERE

Red Fox pups playing (Carlton County, Minnesota)
[Sony A6500 with Canon EF 400mm f5.6L USM lens attached with Metabones adapter; 1/500 second at f5.6; ISO 800; hand-held]

On may way to photograph Loons one early summer morning I stumbled across a trio of romping Red Fox pups. I stayed with them for nearly an hour and enjoyed their antics. The loons could wait.

It seemed that only two would wrestle at a time, never all three. I took many photos and quite a bit of video.

Leaping for Lunch; Red Fox (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/1250 at f6.3; ISO 250; +0.33ev; hand-held]

This mellow Red Fox tolerated my presence for about 10 minutes as it hunted for voles along a minimum maintenance road and a farm field in the Sax-Zim Bog. Occasionally it would hear the sound of a vole under the crusty snow; its ears would rotate forward towards the sound, it would then rock back on its haunches, then launch high into the air to get enough force to break through the crusty snow to get a the vole.

Pine Marten (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; f5.6 at 1/500 second; ISO 200; tripod

Pine Martens LOOOVE peanut butter! And suet. And carcasses. So they are occasionally attracted to bird feeding stations in the Sax-Zim Bog. They use this food to supplement their normal diet of Ruffed Grouse, voles and squirrels. There were at least two, and possibly three coming to this feeder. They ignored the nearby birders and photographers for the most part. It is ALWAYS a treat to see these guys.

Top Ten Birds-in-the-Landscape Photos 2019

More and more I like photos that show the bird and its habitat. One of my favorite artists, Robert Bateman, often placed the birds quite tiny in the surrounding landscape…so tiny sometimes that you really had to search!

These photos tell more of a story than close up bird portraits, they often have to be viewed in a larger format to fully appreciate them. So go ahead and click on each image to see them larger.

Snowy Owl on haybale in the Sax-Zim Bog (St. Louis County, Minnesota)

This very white mature male Snowy Owl hung around the Sax-Zim Bog all winter, and he spent most of his time in just two fields. This field had hay bales which made a convenient perch in which to scan and listen for voles.

Red-tailed Hawk (Carlton County, Minnesota)

I do love old fencelines with weathered and lichen-covered posts, and I scan for subjects perched on them. Fortunately this day I ran across a hunting Red-tailed Hawk that actually allowed me time to get my camera out the car window and snap a few shots. I think the falling snow adds a lot to this image, as does the red tail feathers which add a spot of color.

Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus WMA, Polk County, Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 70-200mm f4 L USM lens at 100mm; 1/800 second at f4; +0.33ev; ISO 250; tripod]

Dawn in the aspen parkland of northwest Minnesota and a Greater Prairie Chicken booms on its lek. This spring courtship display is the essence of prairies on the Great Plains. About 18 other prairie chickens are just out of frame. I spent about 5 hours in a blind watching and filming their antics. No better way to spend a spring morning!

See the expanded blog post with many photos here

See the link to the Shooting with Sparky Greater Prairie Chickens video here

Mountain Bluebirds in snowstorm (Teddy Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/1250 second at f5.6; ISO 400; tripod]

Half way through our epic journey home from Yellowstone in a massive stalled out blizzard, Ryan and I stopped at Theodore Roosevelt National Park for a night. The early October storm caught many birds off guard and this flock of Mountain Bluebirds were feeding on the only snow-free spot available, the recently plowed road shoulder. But they would perch on this nearby barbed wire fence.

Greater White-fronted Geese in April (Western Minnesota)

I had never seen anything like the congregation of geese in western Minnesota this past April.  It was like stepping back in to an old-timer’s memory when they reminisce about “the skies filled with flock after flock of geese.” And there were literally flock after flock of geese filling the skies. (Where have I heard that before?). These Greater White-fronted Geese filled the frozen marsh.

Northern Saw-whet Owl in nest cavity (Superior National Forest, St. Louis County, Minnesota)

Abandoned Pileated Woodpecker cavities provide homes for many critters in the North Woods including Flying Squirrels, Hooded Mergansers, Common Goldeneyes, Pine Marten, and owls such as this Northern Saw-whet Owl. I have scratched on 100s of trees with Pileated cavities over the years, but never found a Saw-whet, but this spring I got lucky. I wish I could have checked on the cavity more times, but other commitments got in the way. I hope she raised a brood of little Saw-whets.

Early-returning Trumpeter Swans on Stone Lake (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)

A classic northern Minnesota scene that we would not have seen 30 years ago. Thanks to the efforts of the Minnesota DNR, Carrol Henderson and many others, we now have a “bumper crop” of Trumpeter Swans each spring. They arrive at first ice-out to claim the best nesting territories.

Snow Geese on the Minnesota prairie in April (Western Minnesota)
[Canon 7D with Sigma 50-500mm lens at 113mm; 1/640 second at f5.6; ISO 1250; hand-held]

Like a Les Kouba painting from the 1970s, this scene includes a flock of geese and a weathered windmill in the farm country of western Minnesota.

Long-tailed Ducks on Lake Superior (Two Harbors, Minnesota)

I guess the icy landscape of Minnesota’s North Shore dominates the birds in this photo. But it is how you often see Long-tailed Ducks on Lake Superior; bobbing and diving in the icy waters of Lake Superior.

American Robin, Eastern Bluebird and Mountain Bluebirds (Teddy Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota)
[[Canon 7D with Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L USM lens; 1/5000 second at f5.6; ISO 1000; tripod]

Three species of thrushes wait out an early October snowstorm in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota: Eastern Bluebird, American Robain and Mountain Bluebirds.

Gambel’s Quail (Portal, Arizona)

A week in southeastern Arizona allowed me to finally thaw out from the long winter. And I got to see many desert and mountain specialty birds that I hadn’t seen in 20-plus years. This Gambel’s Quail is singing from about the best perch available in the Chihuahuan Desert…a huge stalk of a Yucca.

Snow Geese (Western Minnesota)
Trumpeter Swans (Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota)
[DJI Phantom 4 Pro]

Winter was finally loosening its grip in mid April in northern Minnesota. Lakes were starting to open up and any patch of blue was occupied by early-returning Trumpeter Swans in order to claim the best nesting territories. A drone allowed me to get this shot. The swans never even looked up at the strange “whirring bird” over their heads.