Galapagos Cormorant

Flightless Cormorant, Galapagos Islands

Flightless Cormorant, Galapagos Islands

One of the world’s rarest birds.  This cormorant, endemic to the Galapagos Islands, is flightless.  Only found on these islands, there are about 1,600 individuals.

 

Cormorants in general have about 40 different species, found all over the world.  They nest in colonies around coastal shores, and dive deeply for fish.  Underwater they skillfully propel themselves with webbed feet.

 

They lack an oil gland for waterproofing their wings, so you will often see them drying their wings in the sun.

 

In the Galapagos, Phalacrocorax harrisi have evolved without wings.  Living on shorelines rich with food, it was not necessary to travel to breeding grounds.  In addition, there were no ground predators on the islands to instigate flight.  Underwater, wings trap air.  So they evolved wingless, flightless.

 

Pair on nest with juvenile in center

Pair on nest with juvenile in center

Over the centuries predators have come to the Galapagos Islands via visitors.  Humans, cats, rats, dogs, and pigs can quickly destroy this bird that cannot fly away.

 

Flightless-Cormorant,-overview

The population has fluctuated over the years.

 

At one time they were Endangered, but the species stabilized and they were downlisted to Vulnerable in 2011.  Fortunately they are fast breeders.

 

The Charles Darwin Research station has been critical in sustaining populations of many wildlife species in the Galapagos, including the cormorant.  Conservation efforts include eradication and monitoring programs, restriction of human visitation, and prevention of fishing nets.

 

More flightless cormorant info here.

 

Australasian Darter, cormorant relative

Australasian Darter, cormorant relative

Anyone living near the water sees cormorants all the time.  We see them on the shoreline drying out their long, fully outstretched wings; or flying above the water.

 

It is a peculiar sensation, therefore, to see the same bird walking, with useless little wing stubs.  I found myself unabashedly staring at them.

 

Flightless-Cormorant,-profileI don’t think they minded.  They knew they were very special.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

Out of Africa

Lion cubs

Lion cubs

“You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.”

~~ Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen), “Out of Africa”

 

On the outskirts of Nairobi is Karen Blixen’s home, the author of “Out of Africa.”

 

She lived here from 1917 to 1931.  Under pseudonym Isak Dinesen, she later wrote the autobiographical story of her adventures while living and farming in Kenya.  Published in 1937, it was later made into an award-winning film.

 

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Karen Blixen Museum, courtesy Wikipedia.

Now a museum, I visited the house on my way out to the African bush.  It is modest, of bungalow architecture, with many verandas and surrounded by gardens.

 

Museum info here and here.

 

Here Karen Blixen and her husband owned and managed a 4,500 acre farm, including a 600 acre coffee plantation.  After they separated, she ran it on her own.  More about Karen Blixen here.

 

Reticulated Giraffe, Kenya

Reticulated Giraffe, Kenya

The novel is a series of ongoing true stories about living in the African savanna; learning and adapting to the culture of tribes people; and the ups and downs of running the farm.

 

More about the book here.

 

Karen Blixen Museum

Karen Blixen Museum, courtesy Museums.or.ke

Sparks of her remarkable character show through even a century later.  A single white woman (Danish) running a plantation in Kenya, living among people of a completely different culture.

 

She embraced the local tribes people, encouraged them, set up a school for them and their children.  Kenya was under British rule then, and this kind of harmonious spirit of cooperation was not the norm.

 

Giraffe and Zebra, Africa

Giraffe and Zebra, Africa

A century later her farm is gone, and the house is no longer a lengthy horse ride into town.  Instead it is in a suburb of sprawling Nairobi, named Karen, after her.

 

But as you drive out into the wilderness, finding grazing giraffe and stalking lions, you get an easy sense of her courage and spirit.

 

“When you have caught the rhythm of Africa” she wrote, “you find out that it is the same in all her music.”

Hippopotamus, Africa

Hippopotamus, Africa

 

Karen Blixen Museum, photo by Karl Ragnar Gjertsen, Wikipedia

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander (unless otherwise noted)

Baroness Karen Blixen

Karen Blixen. Courtesy museums.or.k, Nat’l Museums of Kenya

 

U.S. New World Quail

Mountain Quail, California (male)

Mountain Quail, California (male)

Here is an overview of the rest of the U.S. New World quail, following the California Quail featured Friday.

 

Mountain quail can be found in mountainous chaparral in the far western U.S. and Mexico.  They migrate from higher mountain elevations to lower for winter.  More info here.

 

California quail (left) and mountain quail (males)

California quail (left) and mountain quail (males)

Lately I’ve been hearing the mountain quail call notes on my morning walk.  We are fortunate that they nest around our property, and are more vocal in spring.  What I hear here.

 

Their “exclamation point” atop their reddish face is distinctive from other quail.

 

An extremely skittish bird, for years we heard, but never saw them.  Then one year, spring of 2009, a pair visited our “seed patch.”

 

Two days in a row they arrived around dinner time.

 

Quail hide and Athena

Quail hide and Athena

So the next afternoon we quickly devised a temporary blind with burlap, and settled down behind it.  We were ready (and hidden) in case they showed up.

 

They showed up!

 

Although we still hear them every spring, we have only seen them once or twice since then.

 

Gambel's Quail (male), California

Gambel’s Quail (male), California

Gambel’s quail, the closest relative to the California quail, live in the deserts of America’s southwest in river valleys, arroyos, and dry grasslands.  They eat seeds and cacti fruit.

 

Gambel's Quail (male), California

Gambel’s Quail (male), California

We were lucky to see a pair at the Salton Sea in southern California.  More info here.

 

Montezuma quail, courtesy Wikipedia

Two more western U.S. quail are the montezuma and scaled quail.  They live in and around Mexico and the southwestern U.S.

 

Callipepla squamataUSDAalt.jpg

Scaled quail, photo by Gary Kramer, courtesy Wikipedia

Montezuma quail info here.  Scaled quail info  here.

 

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Northern Bobwhite, photo by Virginia Wachtel, courtesy Wikipedia.

The last on this list of quail, Northern Bobwhite are the only native quail in the eastern U.S.

 

Named for their whistling call sound “bob-white,” this species is further divided into 22 subspecies.  Call sound here.

 

My late father, an outdoor enthusiast, spoke often about the bobwhite in the midwest countryside while growing up.  He often said, “I haven’t seen them in years.”

 

I have spent many hours looking for this bird where he (and I) grew up, but never found it.  Even with a guide, we only heard the bobwhite.

 

Colinus virginianus live in open pine forests, fields, and grasslands foraging on grass seeds, and small invertebrates like grasshoppers and beetles.  Ground-dwelling, like all quail, they also live in a few pockets of the western U.S., and have been introduced in other countries as game birds, too.  More info here.

 

Conservation is underway for this species that has declined for a number of reasons, primarily habitat loss.  Extensive studies have revealed more than 700 fossils of the bobwhite, some 2.5 millions old, throughout the southern U.S.

 

One day two springs ago, I was visiting Texas and went on a self-guided auto tour at Attwater Wildlife Refuge.  I was surprised and delighted to hear the distinctive call of the bobwhite–this bird I had searched for, but only heard, for years.

 

The grass was waist high and all auto tour visitors were prohibited from getting out of their car.

 

We slowly inched closer and closer to the sound, craning our necks out the car windows in search of this bird that would be a “lifer.”  Eventually the cagey little quail emerged from the grass for five glorious seconds.

 

Thank you for joining me on this quail series.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander (unless otherwise noted)

 

California Quail

California Quail, California

California Quail, California (male)

There are many different kinds of quail in the world–Old World, New World; some are native, others introduced.  Some species are thriving, others are threatened, some are farm-raised, or artificially stocked for game hunting.  List of all quail here.

 

Many people are familiar with at least one quail species, for me it is the California quail. Today I’ll share the California quail, and on Monday I’ll cover a few other favorite quail.

 

California Quail

California Quail (male)

Callipepla californica sport a plume or “topknot” on top of the head, and a variety of rich, earth-colored markings and patterns. The plume bobs slightly with the quail’s movement.

 

They do not just live in California, more info here.

 

California’s state bird, they forage, live, and nest on our mountain chaparral property.  They prefer habitat in grassy or brush areas; eating seeds, insects, and sometimes berries.

 

Calif. Quail (female)

Calif. Quail (female)

We see this species all over the state while hiking or driving back roads; they also frequent feeder stations and live in human-populated natural areas.

 

Most of the year the quail quietly visit under the feeders, traveling under cover of the trees and bushes.  They will fly if necessary, their wingbeat making a whirring sound, but usually they walk.  Congregating in large groups, called coveys, families communally care for the young.

 

Calif. Quail juvenile

Calif. Quail juvenile

But at this time of the year everything changes.  Couples pair off, breed and nest.

 

Conspicuously inconspicuous for a few weeks in spring, we know they are busy somewhere with new young, protecting and feeding.

 

As ground birds, they are vulnerable to predators of all kinds including hawks, owls, jays, coyote, bobcat, and domestic house cats.  Stealthiness is crucial.

 

Calif. Quail juveniles

Calif. Quail juveniles

After they’ve been feeder-absent for those two or three weeks of nesting, we avidly keep watch for that one bright day when a pair will reappear under the feeder with the new generation.

 

Sometimes we get to see the brand new fluff-ball chicks.  Most of the time, however, the chicks have been growing for a week or so before we see them.

 

Almost always there are 6-8 chicks per parental pair.  I’ve read they can have up to 28 chicks in one nest, but after 14 years of counting the new chicks, I have never seen more than eight young per adult pair.

 

The first thing I heard when I opened the window this morning was the “Chi-ca-go” call of the California quail.  I looked out and saw the male in the lead, the female following.  It’s a little too early in the season for the chicks, but I watched anyway.

 

California Quail family

California Quail family

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Look for more quail writings on Monday, and have a great weekend!

Yellowstone’s Lower Falls

Lower Falls, Yellowstone. Look closely at upper left hand corner for green stripe.

Lower Falls, Yellowstone. Look closely at upper left hand corner for green stripe.

There are 290 waterfalls of at least 15 feet (4.6m) high in Yellowstone National Park.  The highest one, Lower Falls, is also the most powerful.

 

Feeding from the Yellowstone River, it boasts the largest volume of water of all waterfalls in the Rocky Mountains.

 

Located in the state of Wyoming, near Yellowstone’s Canyon Village, Lower Falls can be accessed via a loop road as well as trails.

 

One of Yellowstone’s most popular sights, Lower Falls is 308 feet tall (twice the height of Niagara).  Up river, out of sight from Lower Falls, is Upper Falls.

 

Lower Falls Canyon

Lower Falls Canyon

Click here for info on Yellowstone Falls.  Click here for National Park Service waterfall video and aerial photos.

 

Surrounding the Lower Falls are majestic canyons, known as the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.  Carved by the Yellowstone River, it is 24 miles (39km) long and 1,200 feet (370m) deep.

 

Natural features and activities such as rhyolite rock and other minerals, hydrothermal alteration, erosion, and oxidizing resulted in the unique coloration of the canyon.  More about the Canyon here.

 

The chromatic canyons, raging waterfalls, and rushing river present  breathtaking vistas.

 

I have memorable images of wonderful waterfalls all over this earth, but my favorite feature here at Lower Falls is the green stripe.

 

Look closely (first photo) at the upper left hand side of the waterfall, you may be able to see the bright green stripe of water.

 

It is mesmerizing to be there in person, watching.  Emerald water plunging over the brink of the falls.

 

There is a notch there that makes the water deeper, and keeps it from becoming frothy, thereby causing the water to appear darker as it rushes over the edge.

 

Lower Falls & Yellowstone River

Lower Falls & Yellowstone River

In this spectacular place where humans have lived for 11,000 years, time shifts.  Amid lakes, mountain ranges, waterfalls, wild animals, and thousands of geysers; it is impossible to see everything in two weeks, or even a lifetime.

 

But being here, seeing what Native Americans, explorers, presidents, and millions of other viewers have revered over the centuries, you can breathe in the marvels and know utter fortune.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

The Great Barrier Reef

Masked Angel Fish

Masked Angel Fish

Off the eastern coast of Australia in the Coral Sea, and stretching across 1,400 miles (2,300 km), the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest reef system.

 

Composed of 900 islands and 2,900 individual reefs, it is a living organism made of coral polyps.

 

GBR,-reef-and-fish

Anthia and Bommie fish and reef

Formed by a combination of plate tectonics, volcano flows, and warm tropical waters about 600,000 years ago, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) hosts a marine wilderness of 133,000 square miles (344,400 sq. km.).

 

It has 1,500 species of fish; 30 species of whales, dolphins, porpoises; 6 species of turtles; 125 species of sharks/stingrays; 5,000 species of mollusks including one of my favorites, the giant clam.  More info here.

 

Black Noddy, Heron Isl., Aus.

Black Noddy, Heron Isl., Aus. Photo: Athena Alexander

215 species of birds live and/or nest on reef islands, and the list goes on and on.

 

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the Australian government work tirelessly to preserve this fragile marine system, starting in 1975 with the prohibition of oil drilling.  Thorough and complex management and laws are enforced in the water and adjacent land.

 

GBR,-boatUnlike many other beachy places in the world, snorkeling and diving at the GBR are experienced offshore, because reefs attached to the mainland are rare.

 

It is therefore necessary to hire a boat, and boats are highly regulated for protection reasons.  Australians are proud and protective of their reef, and accommodating to tourists as well.

 

Parrot fish eating coral

Parrot fish eating coral

But all of this slips from your mind the moment you submerge.  It’s no longer a country with a government, or a geological phenomenon.  It is paradise.

 

Parrot fish munching, crunching on coral, a wrasse the size of a boogie board floating by, thick schools of fish in stunning colors, the biggest variety of coral I’ve ever seen.

 

Clown fish

Clown fish

Fish are swimming by, the water constantly lapping, anemone swaying–everything is moving.  Except one.

 

The giant clam resides here, the largest living bivalve mollusk, a rare and threatened species.

 

Giant clam black&white komodo.jpg

Giant clam. Courtesy Wikipedia

Weighing up to 440 pounds (200 k) with an average lifespan of 100 years, they stay put.  They cultivate their own algae, open up the shell to extend their tissue into the sunlight to photosynthesize.

 

I swam all around, observing and delighting in the brilliant colors and unusual shapes, but then I would always find myself returning to the giant clam.

 

That big old clam, so solid and still, seemed to have all the answers.

 

Photo credit:  Calypso Reef Cruises unless otherwise noted

 

Trogons

Elegant Trogon, Mexico

Elegant Trogon, Mexico

One of the most beautiful bird species we have on this planet, trogons range in size and color, and are usually sexually dimorphic (males and females differ in appearance).

 

They live in tropical forests in the Americas, Africa, and Asia.  Here I will focus on the Neotropical species, where Trogonidae are most prevalent (24 species).

 

Violaceous Trogon, Costa Rica

Violaceous Trogon, Costa Rica

Found in Mexico, Central and South America, trogons are a favorite for birdwatchers due to their colorful nature.

 

There is also one trogon species in the U.S., the elegant trogon, that lives in the Arizona mountains.  More trogon info here.

 

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica

Although trogons vary in size, they are generally what you see photographed here, in the approximate range of 12 inches long (30 cm), weighing about 2.4 ounces (67 g).

 

The resplendent quetzal, also in the trogon family, is a similar size too, excluding his 26″ (65 cm) tail, (separate quetzal post here.)

 

Arboreal in nature, trogons feed on insects and fruit found in the forest. They fly fast, but do not migrate, even have to use their wings to turn around on a branch.  With broad bills and weak legs, they live and stay in dense tree foliage.

 

Citreoline Trogon, Mexico

Citreoline Trogon, Mexico

The word “trogon” is Greek for “nibbling,” referring to their behavior of gnawing holes in trees to build nests.

 

Trogons have confounded taxonomists for centuries due to the birds’ unusual toe arrangement.  They are the only creature in the world with digits 1 and 2 pointing backward, and digits 3 and 4 pointing forward; defining them as heterdactyly.

 

Mtn Trogon, Mexico

Mtn Trogon, Mexico

Quiet and reclusive, and tucked deep into forest foliage, trogons are not easy to spot.

 

With the help of a guide, I had my first challenging glimpse of a trogon two decades ago in Arizona, and they have been a favorite of mine ever since.

 

I have had the fortune of spotting many trogons since then, and earnestly search for them.

 

Black-headed Trogon, Belize

Black-headed Trogon, Belize

Even while touring a Mayan site in Belize, when I learned trogons lived in the surrounding trees, I spent more time visiting trogons than burial sites.

 

Quiet and elegant, trogons reign majestically over the forest, usually dazzling anyone who is fortunate enough to spot one.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander