Sunday, July 29, 2012

Utah Vacation, Part 2: Antelope Island

Another real highlight of our trip to Utah was the time we spent in Antelope Island State Park, situated on a large island surrounded by the Great Salt Lake. The environment here was such a strong contrast to the mountains we'd already been exploring -- there were basically no trees on the island, and very few flowers, just expanses of mostly-brown low-lying plants and rock and sandy shores:

But there was plenty of life on the island, and lots of cool creatures to see. At the park's visitors' center, we got a special treat among the building's rafters. Not only were there hundreds of Barn Swallows swooping around, building their mud nests in the shelter of the roof:

But one of the staff members pointed out a Barn Owl nest to us as well, complete with four big babies of varying fluffiness (the fourth owl is hiding in this picture):

That's certainly not something you get to see every day! (Or, I guess you would if you worked at the Antelope Island visitors' center!)

On one of the higher ridges on the island, we had our only reptile encounter of the trip (we somehow managed to avoid snakes), an impressive Tiger Whiptail (Aspidoscelis tigris):

What a striking pattern this lizard has, and I think I can see where it gets its name -- it does have a remarkably long tail:

Down on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, the most numerous creature by far was the Brine Fly. There were so many of these insects that they made black clouds above the surface of the lake, and the clouds shifted -- looking and sounding like waves of water -- whenever someone walked toward them. (You can find some really awesome videos of this phenomenon if you search for "brine flies" and "great salt lake" on YouTube.) The entire beach was ringed with just tons of the flies' leftover pupal casings, making thick brown bands along the shoreline:

The flies weren't at all harmful, and some people were even swimming in the water (I wasn't tempted). Several California Gulls were also wandering around snapping up the flying meals:

A group of Long-billed Curlews was also present at the beach, but they seemed more interested in resting than hunting flies:

There were actually many more birds along the shores of the island, and the Great Salt Lake apparently provides an important source of food for birds, especially during migration. We saw a huge number and variety of shorebirds (gulls, avocets, sandpipers, terns...) as we drove along the causeway that connects the island to the rest of the state, but the many signs along that road warned us not to leave our cars, so we didn't take the chance to explore further.

Towards the interior of the island, we found some of the bigger attractions of the park: large mammals. Pronghorns were only re-introduced to the island in 1993 (they were presumably wiped out many years ago, when the island was a ranch), and they seem to be doing well now. We drove by a small herd of female Pronghorns:

And we saw one lone male Pronghorn, off in the distance (they're such funny-looking -- and cool! -- creatures):

But one of the biggest draws to this park is the island's population of American Bison, which was established in the late 1800s and is managed to maintain a size of around 600 individuals (the island is only so big). We drove by quite a few of these wonderfully massive creatures and stopped to watch them graze:

I think this is probably the closest I've been to a bison. So cool!

I kind of just wanted to hug these guys. I didn't do it, but I wanted to.

We didn't get to see any of the baby bison that are currently on the island, nor did we see the herd in large numbers, but just getting to be close to these creatures was a great experience.

So Antelope Island was awesome, and we didn't even see everything the park has to offer. (There's a population of Bighorn Sheep on the island, and Burrowing Owls.) Maybe someday I'll get to go back....

I have one final sight from the Utah trip to share. On the way back from Antelope Island, we drove a little way into the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge to see what was hanging around. It was pretty quiet overall, but we did get a close view of a Swainson's Hawk -- one of the bigger raptors in the area -- perched on a fence post by the road:

Raptors are always impressive, and this was a nice end to an exciting day.

I had a great time visiting Northeastern Utah and getting to see so much varied habitat and wildlife. What a wonderful introduction to that part of our country!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Utah Vacation, Part 1: Into the Mountains

I spent the past week traveling with my family in Northeastern Utah, a part of the country that was completely new to me. I was excited to visit with my people and see new things, and this vacation definitely didn't disappoint!

We went on quite a few hikes while we were in the area, and encountered gorgeous scenery and cool wildlife with each trip. Our first extended visit was to Tony Grove Lake, a glacial lake up in the mountains near Logan (the town where we were staying), and something like 8,000 feet above sea level. (That's pretty high up!) Tony Grove Lake is apparently famed for its summer wildflower display, and we arrived right in the middle of the show. I have to say, it was pretty amazing:

The steep slopes around the lake were entirely carpeted with wildflowers in full bloom, and in an incredible variety. There was columbine, Indian paintbrush, larkspur, and dozens of flowers I still don't have names for -- if I'd actually tried to catalog and identify all the flowers in bloom, I'm sure it would've taken me all day! Even without knowing all their names, though, the total collections of flowers really were gorgeous:

The lake itself was fairly busy with people (it was a weekend, and there's a pretty popular campground here), but there were also plenty of animals to see. Several of these big dragonflies (which I haven't been able to identify to species) hovered over the water and stayed still long enough for me to take pictures -- I love how this creature has its legs tucked up delicately behind its head:

And a few birds flew down to pay us a visit, including this handsome male Red-naped Sapsucker:

From Tony Grove Lake, there are a few trails that lead up into the mountains, and I spent a good bit of time meandering along one of these. Away from the lake, there were hardly any other people, and as I climbed another few hundred feet, the terrain morphed into something rocky and beautiful:

Up here, there were even more flowers, including some that I didn't see around the lake. My favorite of these was Stonecrop (Sedum debile), with its golden blooms standing a few inches above the plant's weird, round, succulent leaves, which really do look like they're part of the surrounding rocks:

There were some awesome birds up here, too. Mountain Bluebirds and Steller's Jays reminded me of our own Eastern Bluebirds and Blue Jays, and the Mountain Chickadees sounded just like our Black-capped Chickadees (to my ears) and looked like them, too, except for the weird white eyebrows in their black caps:

The family of Northern Flickers that lived along this trail was also great fun to watch. These western birds have red in their wing and tail feathers ("red-shafted") where our eastern birds of the same species have yellow ("yellow-shafted"). I love our yellow-adorned birds, but these reddened Northern Flickers were very pretty indeed:

I even happened (magically) to snap a picture just as one of these flickers took flight -- I can't help thinking of this creature's feathers as flames... what an awesome bird!

Also remarkably flame-like, a male Western Tanager flitted across my path a few times -- you can't not stop to look at a bird like this!

Many of the birds I saw on this mountain had families in tow ('tis the season!), and the Western Tanager was one of these. The baby waits, and Dad obliges by bringing a meal:

This White-crowned Sparrow was another new bird for me, although the species is also an uncommon winter resident in Connecticut:

Next to birds, rodents were the most common and active creatures in these mountains. Chipmunks were particularly common -- I won't make a guess as to specific identification, since there are multiple similar-looking chipmunk species that live in this area -- foraging next to the trail and just basically being adorable (I love this one's bracelet of dripping yellow petals):

I think the elegant markings on these little creatures are just too pretty, and they're more intense than those on our Eastern Chipmunks back home. I took this next picture on another day in another section of the mountains (and it might not even be the same species of chipmunk), but I think it shows off these markings best:

I even saw a couple of chipmunks who were apparently part of a family group, following and climbing over each other as they explored a fallen branch:

Many rocks along the trail served as convenient look-out points for larger ground squirrels -- this one has again evaded my identification attempts, since there are two species it could be:

And although this final rodent has the body stripes of a chipmunk, it's actually another squirrel -- a Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel:

So while I didn't see any big mammals in the mountains (there are elk and moose in the area, among other creatures), I had a fantastic time with the birds, flowers, and small mammals, not to mention the scenery:

Yeah, Utah's pretty cool.

Coming up: an account of our trip to Antelope Island, where big mammals (and other creatures) abound!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Baby Rails! (And Other Shore Sights)

A few weeks ago, I saw a Clapper Rail for the first time, and I was really excited. Well, this morning, while visiting Silver Sands State Park, I was lucky enough to see four of these usually-hidden birds!

One Clapper Rail popped out of the tall marsh grass near the boardwalk to snatch up a small crab for a snack (I'm pretty sure that's what this bird's holding in its beak):

After which it hurried back into the marsh on very dirty (oily?) feet:

A second Clapper Rail was further back in the marsh, preening itself in the morning sun:

And what's that small black fuzzball moving off to the side? Oh my goodness, it's a baby rail!

Wait, make that two babies!

I'm not surprised that these birds were breeding here -- this marsh seems like a great place for a rail to raise a family -- I'm just surprised that I actually got to see the babies! They're such a wonderful combination of adorable and ridiculously awkward, as babies often are -- just look at those gangly legs and huge feet! :D

So that was today's main excitement, but there were plenty of other things to see, too. Down on the beach, dozens of Ring-billed Gulls were beating the heat by panting, and I got to see into quite a few bright orange and red gull-mouths:

A Snowy Egret was standing in the ocean, quickly opening and closing its beak to churn the water, presumably in some sort of feeding technique -- I'm much more used to egrets using the hunting-and-stabbing method for getting food, so this was pretty interesting to watch!

Back in the marsh, a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was hunting in what I think of as the more typical heron/egret manner. But it stood so tall and straight as it waded through the water that it reminded me more of a stork or a crane than a heron:

Once it spotted some prey, it hunkered down into a much more heron-y pose....

Ready? Go!

Mmm, breakfast!

Finally, there was this Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae) feeding from some Spotted Knapweed blooms (Centaurea biebersteinii) -- both of these species are non-native and invasive (assuming I've identified them correctly), but I think they're quite pretty nonetheless:

Tomorrow, I'm leaving on a trip with my family to a strange and foreign land: Utah! I'll be there for a week, and I hope to return with stories and pictures aplenty. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Egrets, Gulls, Crabs, and More

Yesterday's visit to Silver Sands State Park was great fun (as usual), and I ended up seeing lots of interesting creatures. The day started off with a surprise when I walked onto the boardwalk over the marsh and there were Snowy Egrets everywhere!

OK, so that's not the most number of Snowy Egrets anyone's ever seen, I'm sure, but I counted 18 birds in this one area, which is pretty significant compared to the two or three I usually see here. So many egrets!

Not only were there lots of Snowy Egrets, but they were extraordinarily active, too -- strutting around with their fancy crests raised and making their weird honking calls:

A few tussles even broke out while I was watching, with pairs of egrets dancing around and flying at each other:

I normally think of these birds as fairly calm (maybe even serene), so it was really interesting to see them showing off so much. I wonder if these are families of egrets that have come over from their nesting areas on nearby Charles Island.... I don't think I can know for sure, but it seems possible!

Down at the shore, on the tip of the half-submerged sandbar to Charles Island, a female Red-breasted Merganser was preening -- that's quite a beak you have, girl!

Also in attendance was a sleek Common Tern, its red-orange beak and legs practically glowing in the morning sun:

At another part of the shore, I watched some serious drama unfold when a Herring Gull pulled a large crab out of the shallow water (the crab is doing a pretty good rock impression at the gull's feet in this next picture):

The crab put up a valiant fight...

But the gull had the clear advantage with its sharp beak, and the crab didn't really stand a chance.

Poor crab, but that's just how things go.
"What, you got a problem? It's a predator-prey thing -- deal with it."

And there were interesting creatures away from the beach, too. The milkweed plants have practically all finished flowering by now, but that doesn't mean they're not still providing food for animals. This impressive mass of Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars (Euchaetes egle) was working hard to completely devour one milkweed plant (note the already-skeletonized leaves!):

Such fancy caterpillars, with those crazy tufts of hair! They're quite pretty individually:

And I kind of love the effect of all that fuzzy orange, black, and white when they're all together:

All in all, another fun day at the beach!