The Zambezi

Middle Zambezi River, Africa

Every river on this planet has a personality. Come along on a short journey as I share the beauties of the Zambezi in East Africa with you.

 

It’s a bold river that starts in Zambia and winds through six countries before emptying into the Indian Ocean on the east coast.

 

Zambezi.svg

Map of Zambezi. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

The fourth longest river in Africa, the Zambezi is 1,600 miles (2,574 km) long.

 

More info:  Zambezi River Wikipedia.

 

Due to its proximity to the Rift Valley, the geological formation of centuries of uplifts and fault movements have carved the Zambezi through hundreds of miles of mountains and gorges.

Victoria Falls, Africa

Divided into three sections, the Upper, Middle and Lower Zambezi provide much-needed water to this sun-parched inland landscape and its human and wildlife residents.

 

The Middle Zambezi includes Victoria Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Victoria Falls, Africa. Photo by Athena Alexander.

 

Also known as “The Smoke that Thunders,” for the constant spray and roar that the falls produce, Victoria Falls is the world’s largest waterfall. It has a width of 5,604 feet (1,708 m).

 

Where these African women and girls stand in the above photo, it is so loud that they don’t even bother trying to talk. Fresh river droplets are dancing in the air all around them.

 

Upstream from Victoria Falls, the Zambezi flows over a flat plateau of basalt extending hundreds of kilometers in all directions. (See aerial photo at end.)

 

Then, at the falls, the water suddenly plummets 260 feet (80 m) into a deep chasm.

Victoria Falls, Africa

The water volume in Victoria Falls varies depending on the season.  We were there in July, but I’ve been told the waters rage much more in the rainy season, February-May.

 

The Zambezi’s volume also varies by season, with regular flooding and ebbing, other waterfalls, and two hydroelectric dams. It also has many sizeable tributaries.

 

Some sections are pounding with water, attracting white-water rafting enthusiasts for the high volume of water and steep gradients.

 

Other sections of the river are calmer.

 

These next three photos are from a Zambezi tributary, the Luangwa River. Elephants and hippos, wading birds and many other animals gather at the water.

 

African elephant, Luangwa Valley, Zambia. Tributary of the Zambezi.

Hippos at Luangwa River, Zambia, Africa.

 

Locals are often seen on the water in dug-out canoes. Those humps in the water are not rocks…they’re hippos.

 

Hippos and Fishermen, Luangwa River, Zambia. Photo by Athena Alexander.

 

At the border of Botswana and Zambia, the Zambezi is 1,300 feet (400 m) wide and the current is strong. Relations between the two countries have been strained for years, locked in dispute over the construction of a bridge.

 

So instead of a bridge, a pontoon ferry system transports locals, tourists, trucks, and cars across the river. Two boats operate, like this one below, all day long.

 

Kazungula Ferry Boat, Africa

Even though it only takes about 15 or 20 minutes to get across, we spent several hours waiting in the line. Semi-truck drivers wait in line for days, sometimes weeks.

 

I read that recent bridge construction has finally begun.

 

Kazungula Ferry crossing at the Zambezi River, Africa. Ferry boat is left center.

Locals waiting to cross the Zambezi at Kazungula Crossing, Africa

 

Raging in rapids in some places, and too shallow to navigate in others, the Zambezi is a dynamic river. I’m glad you could join me for a short tour.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Zambezi sunset at Livingstone, Africa

The Zambezi and its river basin. Map by Eric Gaba. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Basalt plateau, Victoria Falls, V. F. Bridge. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Mexico Birding

Mexican Parrotlets

We came upon these Mexican Parrotlets in a coffee field while birding in Mexico a few years ago. One of my favorite aspects of world birding is directly engaging with other lifestyles and communities.

 

Parrolets, Mexico. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Our guide didn’t drive, so he hired his friend Lupe, a taxi driver, and we had the most wonderful three days together.  Each day we met at the dark of dawn, spent the entire morning birding, parted for afternoon siesta, then met up again to bird in the cooler late afternoon and evening.

 

Northern Potoo, Mexico

 

 

People in photo, L to R: Lupe the taxi driver, Athena, Guide Armando with scope. Photo: Jet Eliot

 

Coffee berry worker starting his day, Mexico. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

We enjoyed several different boat rides, walked many fields and trails, spent time birding on the beaches and estuaries. The nearby town of San Blas is located on the Pacific coast and is a migratory hotspot for birds. We spotted over one hundred species in those three days.

 

Armando, our guide, liked to stop for fried pork rinds at curbside stands; and took us to a local outdoor food tent where lunch was  excellent food with made-to-order tortillas.

 

Armando and the boatman, Mexico. Photo: Athena Alexander

There’s nothing like travel to learn about our fellow humans, and birding is wonderful for the start of a common denominator.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.

Family boarding boat, San Blas, Mexico

 

Listening to Doves

Squatter Pigeon, Australia

Emerald Spotted Wood Dove, Zambia, Africa

Pied Imperial Pigeon, Australia

If you have ever listened to a dove, you know the sweet, gentle voice of peace. Seems like right now is a good time to relax into the peace of doves.

 

The bird that is classically associated with peace for centuries, doves and pigeons form  the family Columbidae. There are over 300 worldwide species. They live  everywhere except in extreme temperatures.

 

The terms “dove” and “pigeon” are often used interchangeably. Usually doves are smaller, and pigeons larger, but there are many scientific distinctions.

 

More information Columbidae

 

In North America, one of our most common doves is the mourning dove. It has several soft cooing vocalizations that add a mellow, repetitive coo-woo-woo to the air.

 

Mourning Dove, California

Mourning Dove Vocalization

They also have a soft, whistling wingbeat sound.

Mourning Dove Wingbeat Sound

So many times friends or co-workers have excitedly told me they heard an owl, only to find after we investigated further, that they were hearing a mourning dove. It is a muted sound, steady, with a slow, repeating call, and much like an owl.

 

Where I live in Northern California, we have a forest dove, the band-tailed pigeon. They do not have noticeable vocalizations, but the sanguine sight of their 25+ flocks synchronistically cruising over our valley is equally as calming.

Band-tailed Pigeon pair, California

Perched flock of band-tailed pigeons, California

 

The pigeons we see in cities, the domestic pigeon, are called rock doves. Sit on a bench in a city plaza and you can hear their cooing, like purring; the sun highlights their iridescent features.

Rock Dove visiting the San Francisco Hyatt

 

My favorite fruit dove, the Wompoo Fruit Dove, can be found hundreds of feet up in the Australian rainforest canopy eating figs and other fruit. I fell in love with its soothing wom-pooooo call.

 

Impossible to photograph, so high up, I give you an audio glimpse instead.

Woompoo Fruit Dove Vocalization

 

Another Australian rainforest dove.

Emerald Dove, Australia

 

Across the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii, the tender dove calls seamlessly blend into the fragrant air and tropical breezes.

Spotted Dove, Maui

Spotted Dove Vocalization

Zebra Dove Vocalization

We need more docile dove sounds in this world, and fortunately, they’re everywhere.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

White Rock Dove pair, Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, Oahu

 

Wildlife Visitors

Violet-green swallow, California

These photos reflect a few of the wildlife friends who have come to visit us in the past two weeks, as we continue to adhere to Covid-lockdown orders.

 

Numerous bird species that migrate here to breed join the year-round bird residents — all are breeding and nesting right now. It’s a very exciting time and every day the yard is filled with hundreds of avian friends.

California Quail, male, California’s state bird

We have lived here 19 years, on a rural two-acre property in Northern California, and have spent every day turning it into a wildlife parkland.

 

We were recently thrilled to see a pair of California quail finally return to breed on our property. Their populations perished in the 2017 wildlife fires; this spring they are back for the first time. As ground birds, they have to be very stealthy in their nesting; in a week, maybe two, we will see their chicks…if we are lucky.

 

Black-headed grosbeaks abound at our feeders. We heard the first chick this week. In another month or so, they will fly back to Mexico with their new broods.

Black-headed Grosbeak (male); a highly anticipated spring arrival

 

A pair of house finches just successfully fledged three or four offspring this week.

House Finches (Calif.), male on L, female on R

 

It is only minutes after the birds have found their evening roost that we begin to see a bat or two coming in, swooping up insects. They are barely visible in the dusk landscape,  but I know where to look. They are busy all night long.

 

Our resident bats, the canyon bat, are small–smaller than an adult hand. This photo gives you a rare close-up view.

Canyon Bat, California

 

We see western fence lizards every day, which I love, and the snakes are out and about now too. We don’t see reptiles in the winter, too cold, but are always glad to see them in spring and summer.

 

This big gopher snake greeted us on a morning walk last month, on the road adjacent to our property. We watched quietly for a few minutes, until the tongue and raised head sensed us, and then s/he instantly vanished in the weeds.

Gopher Snake, California

 

Mammals recently recorded on our outdoor camera trap revealed a coyote, skunk, raccoon, bobcat, and gray fox.

Bobcat, California

 

The “critter cam” reveals how busy it gets here at night. The animals forage under the feeders for any leftover seeds, and always drink from the water trays now that the winter rains are over. All photos here have been taken on our property, but not by the critter cam.

 

Gray fox, California

 

During the day, mammals most seen are jackrabbits, gray squirrels, and chipmunks. Lately a newcomer has joined the fray, a brush rabbit.

Brush Rabbit, California

I am happy to report the brush rabbit is fitting in well. It must be roosting on the property somewhere, because it’s here daily now, grazing on the last bits of green grass that have not yet dried up.

 

I learned years ago that we have to make our own space. Thanks for joining me in our Peaceable Kingdom.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Anna’s Hummingbird, male, California

 

Insects

Assassin bug, Belize

Hummingbird Moth, California

 

Common Green Darner, Anax junius, California

 

During this time when we’re all thrown off our usual paths, most of us are forced, in one way or another, to look at our surroundings in a new light. During Covid, insects may not strike you as enlightening, but then again, they might.

 

Here are a few insects I have seen on hikes and adventures that remind me to stop and take that extra second to observe with whom I am sharing the trail.

 

This is an owl butterfly that we saw in Trinidad a few years ago. At first glance, it looks like detritus, but look more closely and you see a butterfly. Here you can also see the butterfly is extending its proboscis (the curled stem in the head region), not something you can always see.

Owl Butterfly, Trinidad

 

On a bird safari in Belize last year, we saw at least a hundred butterflies puddling near a storage building drainpipe. At first it looked like black dirt in the gravel.

Black Kite-swallowtail Butterflies at base of drainpipe between building and road, Belize

But all that black to the right of the drainpipe, in the gravel, is actually a huge kaleidoscope of black kite-swallowtail butterflies. They’re sucking up the nutrient-rich moisture. Looking closely, you see exotic features like blue legs and a forked tail.

Dark Kite-swallowtail Butterfly, Belize

 

At home, where most of us are staying for now, there are numerous creatures we’ve never seen before.

 

Being aware of insects is not just a pleasant pastime, it can be a good check on your safety, as well. We learn early in life to pay attention to bees, wasps, and other stinging insects.

 

In the dry, chaparral habitat where I live, scorpions (technically an arachnid) live hidden under leaf litter. They have a stinging capacity, though not seriously harmful. They’re ferocious little critters, but only as big as your pinky finger.

Scorpion, California

 

Dragonflies. If you are able to capture a nanosecond with a dragonfly, a whole new universe opens up before you.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly, California

 

On a personal note, two weeks ago I slipped on loose gravel on a trail, and ended up in the hospital undergoing reconstructive ankle surgery. I have to spend my days lying flat on my back for awhile, so please excuse sporadic attendance and cryptic comments.

 

When I can walk again, I will be back on the trail. When the world is allowed out again and there isn’t a deadly virus threatening us, we will all be back out again.

 

But until then, I hope you are granted a chance to see new creatures that you never noticed before.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Cicada, Australia

Anise Swallowtail Caterpillar, California

 

Giraffes Galore

Masai Giraffes, Tarangire NP, Tanzania

We are often introduced to giraffes as if there is only one kind. Technically, there is only one species, Giraffa camelopardalis, but there are nine different subspecies. Let’s take a look at a few.

 

Masai Giraffes, Serengeti, Tanzania

 

Male Giraffe, Zambia

 

The tallest terrestrial animal in the world, giraffes live only in Africa. Depending on where in Africa you are, their coat patterns differ. See maps and diagram at end.

 

This subspecies, in the two photos below, is known as the reticulated giraffe (G. c. reticulata). They get my vote for the most elegant-looking subspecies. It is named for its net-like, or reticulated, coat pattern with reddish-brown patches separated by white lines.

 

Reticulated Giraffe, Kenya

 

Reticulated Giraffes at Acacia tree, Kenya

 

I am always thrilled on safari just to see a giraffe. It was long after my first giraffe sighting that I started to notice they were different from one another, depending on where we were.

 

Compared to the reticulated giraffes we saw in Kenya, above, look how different this pattern is on the South African giraffe (G. c. giraffa), below. The spots are more jagged. This individual has several oxpecker birds on its back, eating the ticks.

 

South African Giraffe with oxpeckers, Botswana

 

Taxonomist hypotheses and genetic studies abound on which giraffe subspecies lives where, it has to do with mitochondrial DNA.

 

Thornicroft giraffes (G. c. thornicrofti), in the next three photos, have spots that are more notched. They are a race found in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia.

 

Three Thornicroft Giraffes, Zambia. Oxpeckers mid-flight.

 

Thornicroft Giraffe, Zambia

 

We were thrilled to come upon this mother and her two nursing calves, especially since there are less than 600 individuals left of this subspecies on the planet.

 

Thornicroft giraffes, mother nusing two calves, Zambia

 

When you come upon a giraffe they have always, 100% of the time, seen you before you see them. With their height comes perspective, an advantage in the African veldt where giraffes have many predators.

 

Here are two photos below of the South African Giraffe subspecies, G. c. giraffa. This first photo gives you a good idea of the giraffe’s height. They stand 14-18 feet (4-5.5 m) tall.

South African Giraffe and Zebra, Zambia

 

South African Giraffe, Botswana

 

Wikipedia Giraffe.

 

In addition to the subspecies coat variations, each individual has a unique pattern. Calves inherit some spot pattern traits from their mothers. There are many theories on the evolutionary purpose of the spots, including camouflage and thermoregulation.

 

Coloring is also variable.

 

We saw this pair of Masai Giraffes, G. c. tippelskirchi, in the Serengeti in Tanzania. They have jagged star-like blotches that extend all the way down to the hooves. The male, on the left, is darker due to age.

Masai Giraffes, male on left, female on right, Serengeti, Tanzania

 

Often one sees giraffes browsing, and it is usually on an acacia tree. They have a tough tongue that can master the acacia’s long, sharp thorns.

 

This tower of giraffes, however, are clustered under a mighty baobab tree, with no possibility of reaching the canopy.

Giraffes and Baobab Tree, Tarangire NP, Tanzania

 

There are so many remarkable aspects to the giraffe, their unique coats are only the beginning. And their perspective, hmmm, what a gift.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.
All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Acacia Tree, Botswana

 

Giraffe Subspecies map by Creative Commons Attribution. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Giraffa camelopardalis distribution2.png

Giraffe Distribution Map by Bobisbob. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

The Hummingbird Dive

Anna’s Hummingbird, male, California

Among the many extraordinary talents of the hummingbird, the male’s aerial dive is the most astounding of all. A courtship dance, the hummingbird dive is happening right now in the northern hemisphere.

 

It is an electrifying display, even to us mere humans.

 

This week in Northern California, I heard or saw it at least a dozen times every day. In colder areas, it probably hasn’t begun yet.

 

If there is a nectar feeder, it often starts while she’s feeding. Here he is (on the right) at our nectar feeder, impressing her with his iridescence.

 

Anna’s Hummingbird, female on the left, male on the right, California

 

Once he has her attention, he starts the dance. It usually lasts about 12 seconds.

 

Next, he flies straight up into the sky, and he keeps going higher and higher, until you barely see him.

 

He goes up about 100 feet (30 m).

 

Then he plummets, swoops down right in front of her, in a flash. They’ve been clocked at 50 miles per hour (80 kph).

 

In this photo, below, he is diving downward. You can see his bill pointed down.

 

Anna’s Hummingbird doing a “J” Dive, California

 

If you’re standing there, it looks like he’s going to collide with the ground. I have gasped plenty of times, afraid for the bird’s safety. But hummingbirds are known for their precision flying.

 

And then at the last moment, he flairs his tail, lifts up and sails skyward.

 

Also at this moment, his two outer tail feathers vibrate together making a distinct popping sound. The speed is so great, that the wind vibrates the two feathers together.

 

Often his iridescent gorget (throat) feathers light up, too. And he starts singing his heart out.

 

As if this wasn’t enough–this dive-bombing, glittering, tail-popping maneuver and serenading–he performs the dive again and again and again.

 

In the Anna’s Hummingbird species, this aerial dive is called a “J” dive, for the flight pattern that looks like the letter “J.”

 

Every hummingbird species has a slightly different dive style. The ruby-throated hummingbird, prevalent in the eastern half of the United States, does a “U” shaped dive; so does the broad-tailed hummingbird. See diagram at end.

 

We saw this dazzling male Costa’s Hummingbird in Palm Springs. Although we didn’t witness the courtship dive (it was February), I’ve read their dive is similar except they hurtle off to the side of the female and twist, to direct their sound.

 

Costa’s Hummingbird, male, California

 

The sound effects during this dive also vary among species. Recordings of six aerial dive sounds. 

 

Anna’s Hummingbird, male, California.

 

Sometimes in the heart of winter we will have a day or two of uncharacteristically warm weather. In this pseudo spring, the male will perform his impressive dive, thinking it’s breeding time. They are also known to use the dive for territorial purposes.

 

Anna’s Hummingbird “J” Dive, California

 

Many times I have watched the female fly away while he was performing the dive. Consequently, in mid-flight, he aborts the dive. It takes a lot of precious energy to do this dive, and he has decided to conserve.

 

There are YouTube videos on this, but they don’t really capture the speed, because they have to be done in slow motion to even see the bird. The dive is supersonic fast and nearly impossible to record. Here’s one of the better videos, in slow motion.
YouTube Anna’s Hummingbird Dive by Chris Clark.

 

During this season when hummingbirds are getting together to breed, keep your eyes and ears open for this spectacular performance. It happens fast, so you may have to watch it a few times.

 

Glory and beauty in the world of nature: you have to be ready.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Illustration of the flight pattern and courtship rituals of hummingbirds "Male dives toward female, reaching a top speed of ~40-50 mph" "Male emits tail-generated noise" "Male's gorget becomes visible to female, appears to change color" "Male reaches maximal horizontal speed [towards female]" "Male climbs back up, preparing for another dive in the opposite direction"

U-shaped Broad-tailed Hummingbird Courtship Dive Pattern. Courtesy princeton.edu

Easter Eggs

Hummingbird nest, Costa Rica

With spring and Easter emerging in the northern hemisphere, the prospect of new birds, new life, surrounds us. Here’s a look at bird eggs.

 

Having volunteered for several years counting nests for a local bird study, I became adept at finding bird nests. Birds build nests to be hidden, to protect their broods from predation, and it is vital that nests and eggs remain untouched and hidden. All nests photographed here have been treated with careful and knowledgeable respect.

 

Violet-green Swallow eggs, California

 

There are over 10,000 bird species on our planet, so the variation in eggs and nests is vast. Each species has its own method for building a nest and laying eggs, and, additionally, there are variations within each species.

 

Egg shapes, colors, and markings vary widely. Below is a guide for the basic egg shapes and markings.

 

Eggshells are made of calcium carbonate, a white mineral compound. Some bird species also have pigment glands that add color or spots as the egg travels through the mother’s oviduct. Because the large end of the egg travels through the oviduct first, it often picks up more pigment.

 

This little bird came out of a brown-spotted egg–first day of life.

 

Pacific-slope Flycatcher hatchling (orange and brown in center photo), and sibling unhatched eggs

 

There is also a wide range in egg sizes. The smallest eggs are those of Hummingbirds, while Ostriches have the largest. Approximately 5,500 Hummingbird eggs would fit inside one Ostrich egg (Handbook of Bird Biology, Cornell).

 

Purple Finch nest and eggs

 

Egg textures vary too–smooth, rough, chalky and more.

 

With endless variations in bird eggs, only two things are constant: all eggshells are porous, and all are laid by females.

 

Eggshells are covered with minute pores allowing air to reach the embryo inside.

 

Inside the egg is an entire universe. Membranes, fluids, and yolk provide nutrition to the embryo, which rotates and floats throughout incubation. Once the embryo has grown to full size, the bird uses its “bird tooth” to break through the shell.

Chicken egg diagram.svg

Chicken egg diagram. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

A clutch is the total number of eggs laid by one female in one nesting. The clutch size varies among species, as does the number of times in one season a bird will lay a new clutch.

 

Bird egg experts, or oologists, collect extensive data. These days, unlike in the 19th and 20th centuries, experts do not collect the eggs, just the information. The egg chart below, and information in the next paragraph, are from an easily accessible field guide.

 

Detailed data on the Western Gull, for example, says this species can lay 1-4 eggs in a clutch, typically 3. Eggs are laid every other day. Usually the female does the incubating, and it takes 25-29 days, typically 26.

 

We spotted this Western Gull incubating on a coastal offshore island while cormorants, oystercatchers, and pelicans clamored about. I think she was having a tough day.

 

Western Gull on nest, Calif.

 

For many consecutive years, several pairs of Pacific-slope Flycatchers (songbirds) built nests near our front and back doors. Sometimes a pair produced two clutches in a summer, sometimes one, depending on the weather and other factors.

 

When it was time, the eggs would usually hatch one per day. But not always. One spring we had a frigid cold front come in. The Flycatchers’ eggs stopped hatching until the cold spell ended, and then resumed when it warmed up a few days later.

 

In our northern hemisphere, numerous bird species are in some stage of breeding or nesting right now. Miracles are happening all around us.

 

In tropical locations, this often goes on year-round. We spotted these Caciques nesting in February in Trinidad.

 

Yellow-rumped Caciques on nests, Trinidad

 

Just before incubation time, most parent birds develop a brood patch on the ventral, or underside, of their body. While feathers are designed to insulate the bird, during incubation when it is essential that the parent’s body radiates warmth to the egg, a small, featherless patch develops to provide an abundant supply of blood vessels.

 

Waved Albatrosses in Galapagos do not build a nest, but just move the egg around.

 

Waved Albatross with egg, Galapagos

 

Similarly, Blue-footed Boobies do not have brood patches. They use their feet to keep the egg warm.

 

Blue-footed Booby with egg, Galapagos

 

Oval or spherical, spotted or pale green, big or little, pigments in the oviduct, brood patch and clutch — who knew the egg could be so eggciting?

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Egg Markings and Shapes. Courtesy Peterson Field Guides Western Birds’ Nests by Hal Harrison.

 

Three photographs of the same Mute Swan with her eggs, and then cygnets.

Mute Swan with eggs in nest, Easter Sunday 2018

 

Mute swan on marsh nest with cygnets

 

Mute Swan with cygnets, Calif.

 

Unusual Birds for Unusual Times

Male Frigatebird in breeding, Seymour Island, Galapagos

During this homebound time, here are some of my favorite unusual-looking birds from around the world.

 

There are so many lovely creatures in this world, each one unique in its own way. But some are especially different-looking; for today I narrowed it down to 12 birds.

 

Bird #1. Male Frigatebird in breeding (above). We worked and saved for two years to see this sight. This exquisite seabird comes to land only to breed, we were determined to observe his remarkable display; journeyed to a remote island in the Galapagos.

 

The male’s pouch inflates and deflates. He spends a lot of energy to inflate his red gular (throat) pouch to attract females. Once it is inflated, he pounds on the balloon-like body part with his wings; makes booming sounds and vocalizations.

 

After the male has found his damsel, the pouch deflates and the business of preparing for the new chick begins.

 

Bird #2. Nothern Potoo. A nocturnal bird, they perch on the end of sticks, flying out to catch insects and returning to their perch.  Nyctibius jamaicensis blends into the perch, rendering it nearly impossible to spot.

 

Our guide took us in a small motorboat to a Mexican marsh.

Northern Potoo, Mexico

 

There are over 300 different hummingbird species in the world. Many of us have seen hummingbirds or photos of them, yet I found the two following hummingbirds particularly unique-looking.

 

Bird #3. Tufted Coquette. With that punk orange hairstyle, polka-dotted wings and iridescence, its not like any hummingbird I’ve ever seen…and I’ve seen a lot. We spotted him deep in a Trinidad rainforest.

Tufted coquette, male, Trinidad

 

Bird #4. Another memorable hummingbird is the snowcap. Microchera albocoronata is in a genus all its own. They are tiny birds, the male is reddish purple with a bright white cap. Even beneath the dark canopy of the Costa Rican rainforest, that snowy white cap could be spotted fairly easily.

Snowcap Hummingbird, Costa Rica

 

Bird #5. The Resplendent Quetzal. The male has long tail streamers, and the female has the same exquisite colors as the male, sans tail streamers. They eat avocadoes, so a guide took us to a wild avocado grove in the Chiriquí Highlands of Costa Rica.

 

Avocadoes that are not bred for human consumption are small, apricot-sized. These gorgeous birds were elegantly shimmering and fluttering from one tree to the next. They were not-so-elegantly eating: swallowing the avocado whole, then spitting out the pit. I vote this the most beautiful bird I have ever seen.

Resplendent Quetzal, male, Costa Rica

 

Bird #6. Cock-of-the-Rock. One of the strangest birds I have ever seen. We waited in the morning dark, in an Andes lek where males gather to perform courtship dances for the female. This bright orange male struts, bobs and hops while vocalizing a cacophony of staccato sounds. That morning there were five or six males vying for one female; she flew off solo after the show.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Peru. Photo: B. Page

 

Before we leave the western hemisphere, I want to show you a lovable strange bird who inhabits the deserts in southwestern and south-central United States. We saw it in southern California.

 

Bird #7. The Roadrunner. Clocked at 20 miles an hour (32 km/h), this bird is speedy. This creature was the star and namesake of the old Warner Brothers cartoons, the Road Runner Show. There’s a reason Wile E. Coyote never caught the roadrunner….

Roadrunner, California. Photo: Athena Alexander

Sporting a long tail and perky crest, Geococcyx californianus hunts lizards and snakes. You see them sprinting more than flying, though they can fly.

 

The other side of the world is also loaded with unusual-looking birds. Here are a few we found in Africa and Australia.

 

Bird #8. The hamerkop is a wading bird, found in Africa, and is most closely related to pelicans. The color is unremarkable brown, but the shape of the head is highly conspicuous, appearing to look like a hammer. Its name means “hammerhead” in Afrikaans.

Hamerkop, Zambia, Africa

 

Bird #9. The secretary bird is a long-legged raptor. The lower half of the legs are featherless, the crest has quill-like feathers.  Sagittarius serpentarius stomps prey with its muscular legs, and uses the large, hooked eagle-like bill to strike.

Secretary Bird, Africa. Photo Athena Alexander

 

Bird #10. Far less ferocious are the African hornbills. There are several species of hornbills, this one is the red-billed. Their conspicuous bill gives them a distinguished, albeit odd, appearance.

Red-billed Hornbill pair, Zambia

 

Bird #11. Vulturine Guineafowl in Africa. In a land of vast savannahs, guineafowl are large, gregarious birds who eat insects and seeds in the grasses. You often see large flocks of them pecking the ground, like chickens. The Vulturine species, Acryllium vulturinum, has elegant markings.

Vulturine Guineafowl, Kenya, Africa

 

Bird #12. By far the oddest bird of all, the Southern Cassowary has a large casque atop its head, large bristly black body, long legs and neck, bright colors, and two dangling red wattles at the throat. We were birding deep in the rainforest in Queensland with a guide when we unknowingly came close to a cassowary’s nest. We had accidentally agitated the male.

Southern Cassowary, Australia

As big as humans, a cassowary has a large spike on its foot and can land a fatal blow to anyone in his way. We didn’t have long to chat with him.

 

Of course there are many more unusual birds in this world, as well as insects, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals.

 

As we all go through this unusual mammalian pandemic, try to remember that the world is full of odd animals.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Two Runners-Up:

Crested Guans, Costa Rica

 

Emu, Mareeba Wetlands, Australia

 

Jet (L) and Athena on Galapagos. Trees with breeding frigatebird colony in background.

 

 

Hubble Space Telescope

Stephan’s Quintet, interacting galaxies. Courtesy Hubble.

When life on earth gets impossibly complicated, I often look to the skies for solace. On clear nights, I have a galaxy of stars above to embrace me. At other times, it’s Hubble’s photographs.

 

The Hubble Space Telescope (“Hubble”)  is situated above Earth’s atmosphere–340 miles (540 km) up. At this altitude, it is able to avoid the atmospheric distortion that terrestrial-bound telescopes and observatories encounter, resulting in pristine images.

 

Pillars of Creation, interstellar gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula. Courtesy Hubble.

 

The information gathered from Hubble’s 30 years of images have led to breakthroughs in astrophysics.

 

With a very large mirror (see photo at end) and four main instruments, Hubble can observe in ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

 

“If your eye were as sensitive as Hubble’s, you could look from New York City and see the glow of a pair of fireflies in Tokyo.”

(Hubble’s Universe, Greatest Discoveries and Latest Images [2014] by Terence Dickinson.)

 

Hubble Space Telescope in space being serviced by Astronauts Smith and Grunsfeld (center), Dec. 1999. Courtesy NASA.

 

The only telescope designed to be maintained in space by astronauts, Hubble was launched into space in 1990. Since then it has been serviced, repaired and upgraded by NASA space shuttle missions in 1993, 1997, 1999, 2002, and 2009.

NASA:  Hubble Servicing Missions

 

Inside the Orion Nebula. Courtesy Hubble.

 

Due to these upgrades, Hubble is equipped with cutting-edge mirrors, computers and navigational equipment. It remains in space to this day, fully functioning.

 

Multi-layered insulation on the outside protects it from the harsh environment of space. Large solar panels turn the sun’s light into usable energy.

 

The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit

Hubble Space Telescope in orbit. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Over the years, space shuttle missions to Hubble have been cancelled and re-scheduled due to funding and safety issues.

 

The fifth and final upgrade mission was serviced by the space shuttle Atlantis crew in 2009. Upgrades and servicing are over now, but Hubble could last until 2030-2040.

 

This is the Atlantis shuttle craft, below, now displayed in Kennedy Space Center.

 

Atlantis Space Shuttle on display at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida

 

Engineering support for Hubble is provided by NASA and personnel at Goddard Flight Center in Maryland. Four teams of flight controllers monitor Hubble 24 hours a day.

 

Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is currently being developed by NASA with significant contributions from European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency.

 

NASA is generous with sharing data and Hubble images, and also provides numerous websites for anyone to visit, here are a few:

Online brochure:  Highlights of Hubble’s Explorations of the Universe.

NASA Website:  Hubble Space Telescope

This NASA link invites you to enter your birthday to see the photo Hubble took on your birthday. What Did Hubble See on Your Birthday.

Wikipedia Hubble Space Telescope

 

Crab Nebula. Courtesy Hubble.

 

Horsehead Nebula. Courtesy Hubble.

 

Carina Nebula. Courtesy Hubble.

 

 

Jupiter. Courtesy Hubble.

 

The triumphs and discoveries gleaned from Hubble are a testament to the profound abilities of humans from all over the world.

 

While we work on sorting through problems on our planet, we have the skies and space to dazzle our imagination, and open the universe to future generations.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Hubble photos courtesy NASA.

Atlantis Space Shuttle photo by Athena Alexander.

Hubble’s primary mirror measuring 7.9 feet (2.4 m), March 1979. Courtesy Wikipedia

Whirlpool Galaxy. Courtesy Hubble.