Lark Bunting

Lark Bunting, Colorado

Lark Bunting, CO; male in breeding plumage

This beautiful sparrow can be seen in the prairies of central North America, feeding on insects and seeds.  We rarely see prairie birds, for there aren’t many endless prairies left on earth.

 

Spending the winter months in Mexico, Calamospiza melanocorys migrate to the Great Plains in spring for nesting.  They arrive on the breeding grounds in large flocks.

 

We were in the Pawnee Grasslands in eastern Colorado, fortunately it was prairie bird breeding season.  We had no idea what a treat we were in for, having only seen this bird for the first time.

 

 

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

We had just met the couple who owned the house we were staying in, they worked the ranch and the guest house, and lived here.  This was their house in the middle of their 9,000 acres of grass and ranch.

 

The owner, Paul, was going out to check on a newborn calf and invited us to join him.  After he checked on the calf, we bumped across the pasture so he could show us the Lark Buntings.  This quiet rancher with few words wanted to show us the Lark Bunting display.

 

We had seen the bird driving in–it’s so distinctive with the white wing marking on black–but hadn’t seen the courtship displays.  It is Colorado’s State Bird.

 

Here’s what happens:  the male flies up about 20 feet above the ground, and then slowly flutters down on outstretched wings, whistling and trilling until he eventually disappears in the tall grass.  Click here to hear his song.

 

Paul was a slow-talking Colorado rancher who had lived here his whole life, and we were California birders awestruck by so much open space.  And there we three sat, shoulder to shoulder in the cab of his Ford Pickup truck, admiring the grace and wonder of this delightful prairie bird as if we had known each other our whole lives.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Luther Burbank

Shasta Daisy, created by Luther Burbank

Shasta Daisy, created by Luther Burbank

The Luther Burbank Home and Gardens are a public park and National Historic Landmark dedicated to the horticulturist who brought us the Russet Potato and Shasta Daisy.  It is a 1-2 hour drive north of San Francisco.

 

Luther Burbank (1849-1926) devoted his life to hybridizing fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants, and he did so primarily at this location, in the town of Santa Rosa.

Luther Burbank House, Santa Rosa, Calif.

Luther Burbank House, Santa Rosa, Calif.

 

The same house, 1884, with Burbank and wife, Santa Rosa, CA

The same house, 1884, with Burbank and his wife

He moved here from Massachusetts after creating the Burbank potato and selling the rights (for $150).  Here he bought four acres in a climate more conducive to longer growing seasons.  More about Luther Burbank here.

 

When the potato crops across Europe were devastated by blight, he worked on hybridizing a potato that was blight resistant.  It is the same Russet potato you have on your table today.

 

Poster of Burbank's creations

Poster of Burbank’s creations

An inventor who lived before the protection of patenting, Luther Burbank managed to get credit for creating 800 strains of plants.  His experiments in cross-breeding were unique for the times.  There is a little shack on the premises where he sold seeds.

 

A revolutionary in the field of hybridization, Burbank was revered across America during a time when this new science was still considered hocum by many.  Inspired by Darwin and sponsored by Andrew Carnegie, his plant breeding helped increase crop yield and plant quality, insect- and pest-tolerance, and resistance to bacteria and fungi.

 

Burbank Garden with poppies

Burbank Garden with poppies

While there I walked around the neighborhood, wondering where Luther Burbank  might have walked.  I found old oak trees towering over small houses and SUVs, the driveways littered with crushed acorns.  Maybe the oak trees, I pondered, were there a hundred years ago?  I saw Shasta daisies, one of his masterpieces, and poppies, one of his favorite working specimen.

 

But it was later, when I got home and prepared dessert that I was rewarded with one of my personal favorite Luther Burbank inventions:  the freestone peach.  Here in California we have two peach strains, depending on the summer month.  Early in the season the cling peach predominates, but the problem with the cling is the stone and the fruit do not cleanly separate.

 

For those of us who are really into food, we avidly wait for the season to progress when the freestone appears.  The freestone opens up and the two halves break away with ease, exposing the stone without losing any fruit.

 

That night we set the two tender peach halves on the grill, and enjoyed them with a rum butter sauce.  Ahhh, a delightful blend of golden summer colors and tastes, and a respectful salute to the man who not that long ago bent over a greenhouse table perfecting his results.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Burbank Garden featuring Shasta Daisies

Burbank Garden featuring Shasta Daisies

Sandy Hippopotamus

Hippo, Luangwa Valley, Zambia

Hippo, Luangwa Valley, Zambia

The world’s largest population of hippos live in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia, Africa.  They love the water, which is why they are so abundant in the Luangwa Valley.  The Luangwa River is one of the biggest unaltered rivers in southern Africa.

 

Hippopotamus amphibius  need water deep enough to cover them.  Their thin, naked skin is vulnerable to overheating and dehydration; they submerge to protect their skin and stay cool.  Their eyes, ears, and nostrils are positioned high in the skull so that they can remain submerged for long periods.

 

Usually one sees wild hippos in the water.  But they are semiaquatic mammals, meaning they live in both water and on land.  Their diet is grass, so they also require pasture areas not far from water.  They graze for about five hours, then return to water beds to spend the day digesting and socializing.

 

We found this handsome hippo one morning at dawn, while heading out in the jeep.  It was unusual to see him resting in sand, but he still found a shady, cool spot.  He was fine with us interrupting his rest, as long as we stayed in the vehicle.  And we were fine with him glaring at us, as long as he didn’t charge.  I love it when we all get along.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Colorful Fishing

Fishers, California

Fisher people, California

A December day in the Delta in San Joaquin County, California.  I go birding here about every other winter, in search of sandhill cranes.

 

The fisher people did not see or notice the dozens of cranes.  We did not see or notice what they were catching.  But what a lovely day it was.

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Flying out of the Amazon

Manu Airport, Peru

Manu Airport, Peru

The radio tower, check-in, and seating area were all under one modest thatched roof. The concourse was merely a  walk across the grass, and the runway was also used as a soccer field when the airplane wasn’t in use.

 

It had taken us three days on a bus to traverse the Andes Mountains, then two more days on motorized canoe down the Madre di Dios to get deep into the Amazon Rainforest.  Flying out would be quicker, an arrangement that our tour guide had made as we proceeded to other parts of Peru.

 

Manu-airport-luggage,-Peru

Airport hustle and bustle

Interesting “airport” and interesting flight.  There were about ten of us in the travel group, and before we could board the plane we had to be weighed.  All bodies and luggage were weighed on a scale like you see at the doctor’s office.  After we stepped off the scale the attendant yelled our weight to the other attendant with the clipboard.

 

Manu-airport-runway,-PeruAfter an hour or so it was time to take off.  They lined us up by our heftiness.  The plane had no aisle and only fold-down seats.  We sat three abreast, shoulders touching, heaviest in front.

 

Scarlet Macaws at Manu Airport, Peru

Scarlet Macaws at Manu Airport, Peru

Earlier the scarlet macaws, roosters, and geese had distracted us while we waited to board; it was better not to think about any of this.  Now we were excited because we would be flying over the Amazon River basin, the largest in the world.  Great sights and great photos awaited us.

 

The take-off was a bit shaky.  Trundling across a grass field is rough.  With the windows rattling and our bodies severely jostling, we were all happy when our little bucket-of-bolts cleared the thick mass of trees.

Pale-winged Trumpeter in the airport

Pale-winged Trumpeter in the airport

 

We had a few minutes of utter bliss, seeing the massive, meandering river from above.  The Amazon Rainforest, so thick and dense, for miles and miles in every direction.  There was much animation and every camera was wildly clicking.

 

Then all the chattering stopped, almost in unison, when each individual body felt the effects of our unpressurized cabin.  We were flying up and over the Andes Mountains–the world’s highest mountain range outside of Asia–in a plane that was not pressurized.  The highest peak is 22, 841 feet (6,962 m) above sea level, I doubt we were up that high.  But all ten of us suddenly had heads that felt like they were going to burst, and every breath was choked short.  There was an older pilot and a younger pilot, they both wore oxygen masks from take-off to landing.

 

Jet and group during boarding

Jet and group during boarding

The worst of the mild hypoxia passed as we began our descent into Cuzco, it had lasted 20 or 30 minutes.  The laughter started up in bits and pieces, the headaches subsided, and everyone was fine.

 

We landed on blacktop and came to a smooth stop.  We all clapped because we were so happy to be on land again.  The pilots seemed happy about the landing too, and then we learned their secret:  the main pilot, the young one, was a student in training.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

Walking Stick

Walking Stick, Pisac, Peru

Walking Stick, Pisac, Peru

This gangly insect is called a Walking Stick, a member of the Phasmida or Phasmatodea Order.  We saw it in Pisac, Peru.  He was about 2-3 inches long (5-7 cm).

 

They are primarily found in the tropics and sub-tropics, and are excellent at camouflage.  More info here.

 

We found this cool dude cruising the Incan ruins, and he was colored the same as the ancient grounds.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Magnificent Madrone Trees

Madrone tree trunk, Calif.

Madrone tree trunk, Calif.

A tree that photosynthesizes through its trunk is unique.  The Pacific Madrone tree can be seen along the western coast of North America from British Columbia down to California.

 

In July and August when sunlight is abundant and drought is occurring, the tree sheds some of its leaves as a mechanism for tolerating the drought.  The orange trunk bark peels away utilizing the chlorophyll of the green bark underneath, to aid in bolstering photosynthesis.  It is not a deciduous tree, but rather an evergreen; only a small fraction of the leaves are shed.

 

Cedar Waxwing in Madrone Tree, Calif.

Cedar Waxwing in Madrone Tree, Calif.

Bearing tiny white flowers in spring that eventually turn into orange berries, this tree is a smorgasbord for many birds and mammals.  My favorite birds to watch here are the cedar waxwings and the varied thrushes.

 

Native Americans used the berries to make decorations, and fish bait; and although the berries are astringent with high tannin content, they made a cider.  Bark and leaves were used to make tea for medicinal purposes.

 

The tree ranges in height from 33 to 98 feet (10-30 meters).  More info here.

 

Madrone Tree, Calif.

Madrone Tree, Calif.

Arbutus menziesii has a beneficial relationship with fire that becomes a problem in developed areas.  It depends on intermittent naturally occurring fires to control conifer overstory.

 

An elegant and unique tree that provides food for wildlife, shade for humans, and stands so tall in glorious beauty.  As if that wasn’t enough, it also provides the best firewood, even better than oak.  A slow-growing tree, it produces dense wood that I consider “gold,” because even the smallest pieces last in the fire grate for hours and hours.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander