Enjoying the Bats

Long-tongued bats emerging, Asa Wright, Trinidad

Long-tongued bats emerging, Asa Wright, Trinidad

As the second largest order of mammals (after rodents) with over 1,200 species, bats represent 20% of all mammals worldwide.

 

They pollinate flowers, disperse fruit seeds, and consume insects–very important workhorses of our planet. More about bats here.

 

Last month, while lodging at Asa Wright Nature Centre in the rainforest of Trinidad, my partner and I had the thrill of watching a bat emergence every night.

 

bats-emerging-2At first glance they looked like brown birds at the nectar feeders. They swooped in and out so quickly, we didn’t know what they were; but soon it became apparent.

 

The next night Athena was photographing with the last light of the day, when she discovered where they were coming from. In a matter of minutes, dozens and dozens of bats were emerging from a narrow basement corridor underneath our lodge.

 

Long-tongued bats at nectar feeder

Long-tongued bats at nectar feeder

She came and got me, and we watched for 20 minutes as they stopped at the feeders, drank, and flew off. We estimated we saw over a hundred bats.

 

The next night we went early, in order to see them before they came out. And then like clockwork they began flying out of the basement corridor–five or six, then five more, ten more. They left the lodge structure, drank at the feeders, then disappeared into the night.

 

Using echolocation, or biological sonar, they emit calls (we humans cannot hear) that produce echoes. The echoes help the bat to locate and identify objects as they navigate.

 

Pallas' long-tongued bat, Trinidad

Pallas’s long-tongued bat, Trinidad

We were standing about 12 inches (30 cm) apart, when one bat zoomed between us. It was so fast that I didn’t see it, but I felt the breeze on my left ear.

 

Athena said, “They didn’t fly like this last night. They went more directly to the feeders.”

 

“Maybe we’re in their way.”

 

So we stepped back two steps, and instantly the bats’s flight patterns changed; they headed more directly to the feeders.

 

Once we all had our proper place in the world, Athena and I watched while the bats continued emerging, quickly and in abundant numbers.

 

This species is the Pallas’s long-tongued bat.  Glossophaga soricina have the fastest metabolism ever recorded in a mammal, very similar to a hummingbird. Over 80% of their energy comes directly from the simple sugars of nectar.

 

Pallas's long-tongued bat.jpg

Pallas’s long-tongued bat. Photo: B. Wills. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Interestingly, the long tongue of this bat has a mopping ability powered by blood. Elongated hairs at the tongue-tip trigger blood vessels, immediately increasing the length of the tongue by 50%, thereby expanding the bat’s ability to consume more nectar.

 

How does it feel to have dozens of long-tongued bats zipping around you?

 

It was a little intimidating at first, but after that…it was heavenly.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

 

 

 

Tufted Coquette

Tufted Coquette, male, Asa Wright Nature Centre

Tufted Coquette, male, Asa Wright Nature Centre

One of the smallest hummingbirds, when this little orange bullet zooms by, you’re not sure if it’s an insect or a bird.

 

Tufted coquette, male

Tufted coquette, male. See the pollen on the tip of his bill?

Plumes and polka dots, metallic green, a spikey rufous crest, and a red bill–this bird has jazz.

 

Lophornis ornatus–even the Latin name implies decoration. More bird info here.

 

We saw them on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, but they are also seen in the humid rainforests, gardens, and plantations of Venezuela, Guiana, and northern Brazil. Measuring 2.6 inches (6.6 cm) long, the genders of this tiny species do not look alike.

 

Like many hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies, this bird trap-lines while feeding; meaning they repeatedly check the same nectar source, like a trapper checking their traps.

 

If it wasn’t for the vervain plant they predictably visit for nectar, they would have been impossible to observe or photograph. The flower has several tiny petal clusters. The coquette probes its bill into one flower cluster, then on to the next and the next; but they do this so fast, it’s usually just a blur.

 

They feed on the nectar so fast that often their rear end is lagging behind the rest of the body.

 

Tufted Coquette, female

Tufted Coquette, female

 

 

Studying the field guide before our Trinidad arrival, we had hoped to see this splashy bird. Once we found them, and the vervain, we parked ourselves in front of the bush–especially Athena; every morning at dawn.

 

A daily routine has never been so delightful.

 

Coquette drawing from Charles Darwin’s book: The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

 

 

 

The Purple Honeycreeper

Purple honeycreeper, male; Asa Wright, Trinidad

Purple honeycreeper, male; Asa Wright, Trinidad

Honeycreepers are a bird species found only in the tropical New World, they are small birds in the tanager (Thraupidae) family. Like hummingbirds, their long, curved bills serve to reach inside tubular flowers seeking nectar.

 

They live and forage in the rainforest canopy, and are sexually dimorphic (male and female differ in appearance).

 

The purple honeycreeper, Cyanerpes caeruleus, can be found in various parts of South America and on the Caribbean Island of Trinidad. They feed on nectar, berries, and insects.

 

Having recently returned from Trinidad, I had the joy of seeing many of these purple honeycreepers.

 

Purple honeycreeper males on nectar feeders, Asa Wright, Trinidad

Purple honeycreeper males on nectar feeders, Asa Wright, Trinidad

We stayed at a lodge in the rainforest, Asa Wright, that is dedicated to the natural environment and the wildlife of the Trinidad rainforest.  Here they have a verandah with numerous nectar feeders and feeding stations.

 

The purple honeycreepers visit the feeders all day long. They zip and zoom, just like hummingbirds, and there is a constant territorial battle among the other honeycreepers and hummingbirds that frequent here.

 

Purple honeycreeper, female, Trinidad

Purple honeycreeper, female, Trinidad

There are hundreds of birds coming and going all day long, it is difficult, even for an experienced birder, to be accurate in identifying the many different species; and then within each species, identifying the males, females, and juveniles.

 

Sitting at dinner one night at a long table with other lodgers, we were talking about the birds. I heard someone remark on how they liked the little black toenails on the purple honeycreeper.

 

I had been studying the purple honeycreepers–mesmerized by the male’s rich, cobalt color and contrasting bright yellow legs, the markings of the dark throat and moustachial stripe–but I had not noticed the black toenails.

 

What a pleasure it was then, to return to the verandah to study more of this stunning creature.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Kilauea Volcano

Halema'uma'u Crater, Kilauea overlook

Halema’uma’u Crater, Kilauea overlook.

In Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii, you can stand and watch the Kilauea Volcano violently spew molten lava. An active volcano on the island’s south eastern side, this hot spot called Kilauea, in one way or another, dominates the entire island.

 

The Big Island, larger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined, has five volcanoes. Three are currently active, one is dormant, and one is extinct. Of the three active volcanoes, Kilauea (pronounced kill-ah-way-ah) is the most active.

 

The other two active volcanoes on the Big Island: Mauna Loa and Hualalai (see map below).

 

Close-up, Halema'uma'u Crater at Kilauea Volcano

Close-up, Halema’uma’u Crater at Kilauea Volcano. The flames are lava.

There are many craters, vents, and lava tubes surrounding Kilauea.

 

Kilauea (meaning “spew” or “much spreading” in Hawaiian) is 300,000 to 600,000 years old; it emerged from under the sea approximately 100,000 years ago. The first well-documented eruption occurred in 1823, though verbal stories go back much farther. It continues to erupt to this day.

 

Lava Tube, Big Island

Lava Tube, Big Island. Open and lit for tours.

The current Kilauea lava explosions of today began on January 3, 1983. Amazingly, it has continued to erupt for 33 years. One of the longest-duration volcanic eruptions in the world, it has added 499 acres (202 ha) of land to the island.

 

Since 1983 towns and villages have been obliterated, 214 structures were buried, and nine miles of highway were decimated by lava 115 feet (35m) thick.

 

Historically, some years are explosive, other years are not. From 1823 to 1924 Halema’uma’u Crater (Hawaiian for “house of eternal fire”) was a lake of lava. Sometimes the crater was so full of molten lava that it overflowed, spilling rivers of fiery lava across the caldera.

 

Then in 1924, underground contact between magma and groundwater set off violent steam explosions. One explosion hurled an 8 ton (8,128 kg) boulder 1,000 feet (304 m) into the air.  More Kilauea info here.

 

In addition to the volcanic eruptions that burn down forests and smother struggling plant growth, this animated landscape of constant tectonic movement creates earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic fog.

 

Photo of Kilauea Halema'uma'u Crater in 1924

Photo of Kilauea Halema’uma’u Crater in 1924. From: The Big Island by Glen Grant et al.

To see the spurting geysers of red-hot lava, you can hire a helicopter. Less expensive, a visit to the Jaggar Museum; it provides ample information about Kilauea’s activities over the centuries, and good views of Halema’uma’u Crater.

 

View from Volcano House. Photo W.Nowicki. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Lodging at Volcano House, a historic lodge on the edge of Kilauea, is another way to see the volcano. Beautifully renovated, they hosted many famous guests including Mark Twain and president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

 

Hawaiian mythical legend embraces Pele, the goddess of fire. It is said that she resides inside the Halema’uma’u Crater.

 

Kilauea cone Pu’u’O’o, 1983. Photo: G.E. Ulrich, USGS. Courtesy Wikipedia

As we watched the hot lava flaring up, fuming, and spurting inside this crater, we saw an amazing fiery spectacle.

 

It is the most primal form of heat this planet has…and it’s alive and volatile and wildly beautiful.

 

Kilauea Iki Crater with hikers on trail

Kilauea Iki Crater with hikers on trail

Photo credit: Athena Alexander, unless otherwise specified

 

PS – I’m taking a break for a few weeks, returning in February with more stories and adventures to share. See you soon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five volcanoes of The Big Island. Courtesy Wikipedia

Map of Hawaii highlighting Hawaii (island).svg

Hawaiian Islands, The Big Island in red. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Answering Your Questions

Golden Gate GraveyardI have happily received emails and questions lately about the process of my novel writing. In response, I have written a brief page addressing how I determine aspects like the setting, plot, characters, and researching.

 

Visit the “Writing Novels” tab above to learn more about how I write mystery novels. You’re welcome to leave a comment if you want. If you have an additional question that didn’t get answered here, you can also contact me at my email address, via the “Contact” tab.

 

Keep the questions coming, and thank you for your interest.  Tell a friend!

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Jet in Australian rainforest with Golden Bowerbird bower, research for Wicked Walkabout.

Jet in Australian rainforest with Golden Bowerbird bower, research for Wicked Walkabout.

 

Visiting Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island is the most visited attraction in San Francisco, entertaining over 1.3 million visitors every year. The Los Angeles Times declared it the seventh most popular landmark in the world (06.16.15).

 

Every day one boat after another leaves Pier 33 loaded with Alcatraz-bound tourists who are curious to visit the famous prison, learn the notorious history. As a San Francisco resident I had already visited here, then returned one day in 2014 to study the setting for a scene in my novel.

 

How Alcatraz began. After gold was discovered in California in 1848, prospectors, businessmen, and families arrived here in droves. It was determined then that the increased value–millions of dollars worth of mined gold–created a need for defense and protection.

Alcatraz dock

Alcatraz dock

Thereafter it became a:

  1. Fortress and military installation (1853-1933) ;
  2. Federal Penitentiary (1933-1963)
  3. Native American protest occupation (1964, 1969-1971)
  4. U.S. National Park (1972-present)
Alcatraz cell block

Alcatraz cell block

Read more history, overview here.

 

Touring “The Rock” requires  reservations and involves a fun ten-minute boat ride on the San Francisco Bay.

 

More about touring here.

 

 

Visitors take a self-guided tour with audio tapes narrated by prison guards. You can stay at the island all day until the last boat departure, but most people stay a few hours.

 

Alcatraz cell

Alcatraz cell

In addition to being a tourist prison island, Alcatraz (the Spanish word for “pelican”) is also a prominent site for nesting birds; and has tide pools, sea mammals and other wildlife, even glowing millipedes.

 

The day we were there we saw Anna’s hummingbirds, a variety of sparrows, plenty of gulls and cormorants.

 

National Park Service nature info here.

Glowing millipedes on Alcatraz here.

 

The boat drops you off at the dock, a ranger gives you an overview of the facility and the rules. There’s a steep walk up to the prison, passing by old military gunnery, the water tower and guard towers, other old buildings, and gardens.

 

Alcatraz scaled model at Pier 33, Jet (in pink)scoping it out

Alcatraz scaled model at Pier 33. Jet (in sunglasses) scoping it out.

All the photos here are from that October day when I went to observe and take notes. Golden Gate Graveyard readers will recognize some of these sights from the Alcatraz scene.

 

Once you get up to the cell blocks, you can walk around inside the prison, see where prisoners showered, slept, and ate. Outside you view the warden’s half-burned house, the lighthouse, beautiful views of San Francisco and other sites.

 

Angel Island from Alcatraz

Angel Island from Alcatraz

Having written and researched a lot of history about San Francisco for this novel, I find two things especially fascinating:  over the years once-serious facilities, like Alcatraz, have turned into frolicking tourist attractions. And how curious it is to witness visitors’ intrigue and animation at this decrepit and defunct old prison.

 

The prison has been extensively featured in books (ahem), films, video games, TV series, and more. A popular new Alcatraz-related attraction is the Escape Alcatraz Drop Ride at the San Francisco Dungeon. It is a stomach-dropping ride simulating an attempted escape.

 

Alcatraz Control Room

Alcatraz Control Room

All modern-day Alcatraz folklore stems from the inescapability of this maximum security prison. It was long touted as the place from which no man ever left alive.

 

But is that true? Over 50 years after three prisoners escaped and their bodies were never found, there is still speculation and “Search for the Truth” documentaries. I recently watched a 1979 film starring Clint Eastwood called “Escape from Alcatraz.” It’s pretty good, shows life on The Rock and is based on the actual escape.

 

For an old prison that hasn’t seen a prisoner in over half a century, Alcatraz sure is a lively place. I’m happy it makes for good fiction.

 

Alcatraz view of San Francisco

Alcatraz view of San Francisco

 

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Golden Gate GraveyardIf you haven’t bought Golden Gate Graveyard yet, it is available in paperback ($20) or digital format ($6.99). Buy a copy for yourself or a friend…but whatever you do:  stay legal.

Purchase from publisher

or

Amazon.com or any other major book retailer.

 

 

Celebrating Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every year the Delta and Central Valley of northern California come alive when thousands of sandhill cranes settle here for the winter. My recent post highlighted the migrating ducks; here is a post, with pleasure, on the cranes.

 

Originally named for their migration through the sand hills and dunes of Nebraska, they fly here from the northern part of the continent every winter. See map and links below.

 

Sandhill Cranes, California

Sandhill Cranes, California

The sandhill cranes are mesmerizing to observe with their distinctive bugling calls, animated mating dances, graceful foraging, and stately appearance. A social bird, they travel in large flocks as a form of protection.

 

Approximately four feet tall (1.21 m) with a wingspan of over seven feet (2.13 m), the long-legged Grus canadensis is an omnivore. They eat insects, roots of aquatic plants, rodents, amphibians, snails, reptiles, berries, and cultivated grains.

 

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

With one of the longest fossil histories of any extant bird, sandhill cranes date back 2.5 million years. Over-hunted in the Gold Rush days, and listed as threatened in 1983, the population has made a recent comeback.

 

Wikipedia overview.

 

Sandhill Cranes in rice field

Sandhill Cranes in rice field

 

 

Winter in northern California is typically cool in the 40s F. (4 C ) with frequent rain storms. The cranes forage in shallow wetlands, a habitat that is diminishing across America. In addition, some states allow hunting of sandhill cranes, though not in California. So here they have a haven where it is safe to traverse the wet fields and open skies in search of meals.

 

Sandhill Cranes; parent on right, juvenile on left

Sandhill Cranes; parent on right, juvenile on left

 

The Nature Conservancy has worked cooperatively with farmers for many years toward attracting the cranes for winter “stopovers.”

 

This worldwide non-profit organization pays California rice farmers to keep their fields flooded and to leave rice straw acreage in place, providing suitable crane roosting and foraging habitat. While it is not a huge moneymaker, the farmers respect the land as crane habitat.

 

In the spring the cranes will return to their breeding grounds in the northern parts of  North America and northeastern Siberia, usually producing two eggs per season. With a lifespan of 20-30 years, cranes mate for life.

 

Sandhill cranes, California

Sandhill cranes, California

I have spent over two decades traipsing around these back roads, watching for this bird that I am so happy to greet every winter. I have watched many people (birders and not) at refuges and along the country roads–they are enthralled with the cranes, stop and watch the spectacle of these flocks.

 

How can you not be transformed by thousands of cranes congregating in a field?

The sound of a large flock of sandhill cranes by Bobby Wilcox

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Sandhill Cranes, Lodi, Calif.

Sandhill Cranes, Lodi, Calif.

 

 

 

Where to look for sandhill cranes in northern California:

Consumnes River Preserve

Isenberg Sandhill Crane Preserve

 

Sandhill Crane Range Map

Sandhill Crane Range Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org