Wild Jekyll Island

It was a fun day romping on this barrier island–hiking through native forests, observing wildlife, and delighting in shoreline discoveries.

The State of Georgia has 14 barrier islands lining the Atlantic coast. They are owned and managed by different entities; vary in size and accessibility. A map at the end outlines all the islands.

Barrier islands are coastal landforms shaped by tides, waves, wind, sand and other elements. They protect the coastline by forming a barrier, thereby blocking ocean waves and wind from directly hitting the mainland.

Salt marshes and maritime forests are important natural features of the barrier islands.

Like all the Georgia barrier islands, Jekyll Island has a rich history of human settlement going back hundreds of years.

But the beauty of Jekyll Island today lies in its ownership and laws. The State of Georgia owns this island, and state laws restrict development to only 35%.

This allows 65% of the island for natural habitat. Stewards of the land have done a great job of protecting the wilderness from human development.

Roughly seven miles long (11 km) and two miles wide (3 km), it is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the eastern side, and a tidal creek and salt marsh on the western side. It is 5,700 acres (2,307 ha). Map below.

I was impressed with the sand dunes and native sea grass on Jekyll’s oceanside beaches. Often American beaches have been completely cleared of native habitat, succumbing to human establishments like high rises and amusement parks. There are about nine hotels and a few restaurants, but the natural landscape prevails.

The beaches have been preserved with native flora, providing habitat and protected nesting for endangered sea turtles and migrating shorebirds.

We spent a few hours at Driftwood Beach on the north end. It is adjacent to a protected marsh where we saw many thriving waders, songbirds and shorebirds.

The island has many miles of maritime forests, as well. Maritime live oak forests are the dominant woods in Georgia’s southern barrier islands. In addition to the live oaks, so beautifully draped with Spanish moss, there is a variety of hardwood and pine trees.

The understory is alive with unique lichen, ferns, wild blueberries, and the ubiquitous saw palmettos.

We explored Tupelo Trail and Horton Pond. Even in October it was very hot and humid, but still it was an easy hike under a towering canopy complete with mosquitoes, shimmering spider webs and many species of foraging birds.

Signs warned of alligators, but our reptilian experiences were highlighted that day with numerous lizards and skinks, not alligators.

Horton Pond–named after Major William Horton, a land owner here in the 1740s–is a testament to the island’s ongoing conservation efforts. With fund-raising donations and the Jekyll Island Authority, the pond was updated in 2014.

It has a handsome observation deck, providing great views of the entire pond, while protecting the wild denizens.

We saw woodpeckers, songbirds, anhingas, and herons in the pond’s surrounding trees, and dozens of native softshell turtles swimming in the naturally tanic waters.

This softshell turtle is taking advantage of the floating raft anchored in the pond.

We had a great time on the north tip of the island, too. Clam Creek Road offers picnicking and wildlife viewing and an abundant plethora of tidal wildlife. I could easily and joyously have spent the entire day here.

The parking lot at Clam Creek was mellow and not teeming with cars and people, affording us the opportunity to enjoy this boat-tailed grackle bathing (and singing) in a puddle.

There is an extensive fishing pier, here, too. Built in 1969, it is a large T-shaped concrete structure that juts 360 feet (110 m) into the waters of St. Simons Sound. I’ve read there’s good fishing: red drum, spotted seatrout, Spanish mackerel, flounder, shark, and more, as well as shrimp and blue crabs.

In the photo below you can see what the pier looks like at most moments. It was low tide, and seemingly quiet and low-key, but there was a lot going on under the surface.

We were having a great time spotting shorebirds and hermit crabs, and all the wildlife who live in this plentiful world.

And then an incredible event happened.

A super giant cargo ship quietly passed by.

The Bravery Ace is 623 feet (190 m) long and 104 feet (32 m) wide. It’s called a Vehicles Carrier, transports thousands of cars and trucks.

You can see how big it is compared to the pier. It stirred the waters as it slowly labored by.

Although we stopped and stared at this magnificent vessel, the gulls didn’t stop picking the dead crabs apart and the shorebirds were undeterred in their feeding frenzy.

I hope to one day return to this Georgia gem. But in the meantime, I have sweet memories of a precious day on Jekyll Island.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Two Jekyll Island websites: Wikipedia and Jekyll Island.com

Sherpa Guides | Georgia | Coast | Jekyll Island
Courtesy Sherpa Guides.com

Georgia’s 14 Barrier Islands, Courtesy herbmiles.com

Black and White Friday

We are often attracted to the colorful wildlife on this planet, but for today, Black Friday, let’s take a look at our charismatic black-and-white animals.

There are all sorts of black-and-white animals, domestic-bred and wild, mammals and insects and everything in between. As always, I will focus exclusively on the wild animals here.

Zebras are probably the most fascinating, for their psychedelic coats.

The human fascination for zebras goes back centuries, and so do the scientific theories for their striped patterns.

In studies of the evolution of wild animals, defense is usually the key consideration. One defense theory for zebras is that in a group of them the striped patterning makes it difficult for a predator to focus on just one individual, a sort of camouflage.

Take one look at a zebra group (below), and you see firsthand how your eyes have a hard time focusing on any one individual.

Aptly, a collective noun for zebras is “dazzle.”

There are many more zebra-stripe theories, read more here: Zebra Wikipedia under Stripes

In contrast, defense for skunks, another black-and-white, is notoriously their smell. That strong obnoxious liquid they spray is a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals. Most predators rarely attack skunks due to the foul spray…except for one.

Great horned owls are the only predator to routinely attack skunks, due to the skunks’ poor sense of smell. They take down all six skunk species, even the heavier-bodied striped skunk species seen here.

Orca whales, badgers, pandas, and many more wild mammals have black-and-white coloring.

I recently saw a fellow walker with a Dalmatian dog, and that got me thinking about all the domestic-bred pied animals. The list keeps growing.

The black-and-white colobus monkeys, one of my favorite monkey species, are an Old World monkey. Sitting in a jeep one day on Mount Kenya, I heard a lot of rustling in the trees overhead. What a pleasant surprise to see these animated monkeys swinging from tree to tree, their fluffy white tails illuminated by the sun.

Our flightless birds the penguins–a familiar and loveable black-and-white presence on earth.

These Galapagos Penguins, below, are the only penguin species that live north of the equator. They typically live in caves and crevices for protection. Now listed as Endangered, this trio was under mangrove roots along the shoreline.

Of the flying birds, there are many black-and-whites.

Some are more familiar like woodpeckers, gulls, terns, and magpies.

This magpie photo reflects the color blue (on the rump), often not seen in a bird that is primarily black and white. Only if the sun is shining just right does an iridescent color appear. I’ve seen it at different times in magpies, the pied kingfisher, and bufflehead ducks, to name a few.

Here are two lesser-known black-and-white birds in the U.S.

These striking black-and-white birds reside on other continents.

Lastly, it is interesting to note that many mostly-white birds often have black wing tips. It is theorized that the white feathers without pigment are not as strong as feathers with pigment. Dark wings or wing tips are thought to provide extra protection for the feathers most vulnerable to abrasion during flight.

Migrating birds who fly long distances, like the American white pelican and snow geese below, may benefit from their black wing tips.

While it seems that few things in life are ever just black and white, today we found some wonderment in the wildlife that is.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Turtles and Tortoises

There are 360 species of turtles and tortoises on our planet, and they all fall under the same family Order: Testudines. These reptiles are unique creatures with many fascinating features.

We will look at a few of the major similarities and differences between turtles and tortoises. Nomenclature for these animals varies among countries; we won’t go into that here.

The fundamental difference between turtles and tortoises is where they live–land or water–and how their bodies have evolved to accommodate their environment.

Some of the ways turtles and tortoises are alike: both are cold-blooded (like all reptiles), lay their eggs on land, and have air-breathing lungs.

Just like their lizard cousins, turtles and tortoises need the sun to thermoregulate. Many of us have witnessed this sight before.

The carapaces (shells) of turtles and tortoises differ somewhat. But for both, the carapace is a permanent body part, it is never shed.

There are many of Earth’s creatures that have carapaces: armadillos, shell fish, crabs, most mollusks, beetles, and more.

But turtles and tortoises are the only reptiles with a shell.

Derived from bone, the carapace is permanently connected to the spine and ribs. During development, the ribs grow sideways and enter the animal’s skin, and then develop into broad, flat plates. They form their own personal armor.

More info: Turtle Wikipedia and Tortoise Wikipedia

Interesting Chart showing common species of turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.

And a few of the ways turtles and tortoises differ….

A turtle’s carapace is relatively flat and thin to help with diving and swimming. Small turtles have feet that are webbed or clawed to aid in swimming and climbing onto rocks.

Large turtles have flippers, as you can see (below).

This turtle, below, doesn’t have a full, hard shell (like most). It is classified as a softshell turtle because the carapace is not fully bone. In the center it has a layer of bone, while the edges are made of cartilage and are leathery. It allows them to move more flexibly on muddy lake bottoms, and more quickly on land.

Sea turtles are one of my favorite creatures on earth. There are seven species in the world. In the U.S. we have six species and all are listed as endangered or threatened. Much work has been done to protect our big sea turtles, but there is still a lot left to do to ensure their survival.

Just like the smaller turtles, sea turtles live mostly in the water, coming to shore to bask in the sunshine and/or lay eggs in the sand.

Under water the sea turtles glide with beauty, ease and speed. They are omnivores and spend their submerged time foraging on sea grass, like this one below, as well as jellies and invertebrates.

But turtles breathe air and must surface at regular intervals to refill their lungs.

They labor on land, moving slowly and awkwardly. They use their flippers as best they can, but the earth is not water.

Sea turtles are about four feet long (1.2 m) and weigh up to 400 pounds (181 kg). They generally live about 80 years.

So turtles are omnivores and built to swim and flourish in the water.

Conversely, tortoises are strictly land creatures. They cannot swim.

Their carapaces are heavy and domed for protection against predators. Their legs are short and sturdy to accommodate the heft. Their feet are padded and stumpy, and the front legs are scaled to protect the tortoise while burrowing.

We found this gopher tortoise while visiting the Jacksonville Botanical Gardens. It was about the size of a dinner plate. We were surprised at how quickly it was moving because tortoises are generally very slow. Things to do.

There is dispute about how far back into the ages turtles and tortoises go. But it doesn’t take a scientist to look at their ancient faces and see they are very old creatures.

And that brings us to the longest living land animal in the world: the Giant Tortoise.

While many of the Giant Tortoise species are now extinct, we still have a few living species on remote islands in the Seychelles and Galapagos.

I was fortunate to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos Islands, where they have a breeding program and conservation practices for the perpetuation of the Giant Tortoise. To date there are 16 separate populations on ten of the largest Galapagos Islands.

We spent the afternoon in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island (Galapagos), where we came upon several of these most mesmerizing and magnificent creatures.

They have an average lifespan of 90-100 years, though there are records of some living longer, up to 188 years. They are herbivores, foraging on grasses, cacti, and fruit; and move very, very slowly.

We patiently and appreciatively watched this Galapagos Tortoise on the trail. It took about 20 minutes for it to travel 60 feet (18 m).

They are the Granddaddy of all tortoises, some weighing up to 919 pounds (417 kg).

That day it was quiet in the highland forest, and the tortoises were docile. Except for one sound.

They can pull their heads into their carapaces, like many tortoises and turtles, and when they do the most astounding thing happens. This slow and quiet animal releases a loud hissing sound.

The hiss is the result of the individual releasing the air in its lungs to make room inside the shell for the head.

We came upon these three Galapagos Tortoises sleeping in the mud, while ducks paddled and frigatebirds circled overhead.

The sleeping tortoises looked like boulders.

Every few minutes, a frigatebird, one of Earth’s largest sea birds, would dip its bill into the pond and take a sip.

For more info about Turtle and Tortoises differences click here — Turtle vs. Tortoise.

Turtles and tortoises, several hundred different species on our planet. They use the sun to create their energy and walk through life with a shell on their back. That is one unusual and beautiful being.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Georgia Insects

Visiting an unfamiliar region yields a plethora of new wildlife species to discover. Here are a dozen insect species we came upon recently while adventuring in the State of Georgia.

In many places in the northern hemisphere, the weather in October brings increasingly cold weather and less insects. But in the southern states the cold weather is often not as extreme or as long-lasting.

Last month in southeast Georgia, it was in the Fahrenheit 80s and 90s (27-32 Celsius) and insects were still abundant.

Butterflies are one of our planet’s most decorated insects, and the numerous species in Georgia did not disappoint.

The Gulf Fritillary, photographed above, appeared often, lighting on a variety of flowers. Like so many butterflies, the markings on the dorsal (top) side and the ventral (underside) are different, boasting two unique looks on the same individual.

Another exotic southern butterfly is the Zebra Longwing.

I have seen this species in Texas and Florida on previous trips, and was delighted to find about a dozen of them fluttering among the weeds behind the Dairy Queen. I’ve read they roost in groups of up to 60 at night, for protection.

The insect I was most fascinated with on this trip was the Cattail Toothpick Grasshopper. They have unusually pointy heads and long, thin bodies, much like a toothpick.

One day I had the joy of watching this grasshopper species in the marsh grass. I was walking along the dock when I noticed one effortlessly sail from one thin marsh reed to another. I was mesmerized as it danced across the reeds and out of sight.

Dragonflies, like butterflies, are insects that offer a kaleidoscope of bright colors and interesting markings. Add to that their compound eyes and shimmery wings, and you have one of Earth’s masterpieces.

We were spotting birds at a stagnant-looking pond covered with duckweed, when this flamboyant pink dragonfly, below, greeted us. A roseate skimmer.

Then minutes after the Roseate Dragonfly visit, a Roseate Spoonbill flew overhead. What a rosy day.

While on a boat tour in the Okefenokee Swamp, this Eastern Pondhawk Dragonfly, below, kept landing next to my feet. The boat was fiberglass with a flat bottom, and I cannot imagine the dragonfly particularly liked the fiberglass. So maybe she liked the boat’s vibration, or maybe she just felt like hitching a ride.

Other Georgia dragonflies that greeted us were the Eastern Amberwing with its dazzling gossamer red wings…

… and the dashing blue dasher.

One day for about five minutes, this handsome grasshopper landed on the patio. The vertical brown body part is his wings.

I found this wasp especially beautiful in its striking geometric markings.

And here are a few more butterflies, because we can never have too many butterflies in this world.

A pair of mating Cassius Blue Butterflies and, in the subsequent photo, a Cloudless Sulphur.

Lastly, one of my favorite butterflies while in Georgia: the Palamedes Swallowtail Butterfly. You can see how big it is in comparison to the Plumbago flowers. Swallowtail butterflies, from the Papilionidae family, are some of the largest butterflies on our planet.

Insects are integral to our planet. Some resources say that insects comprise 80-90% of the animal life forms on Earth.

I still have Georgia reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals to share with you. But for now, we can find glory in these most amazing insects.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Spanish Moss

Trees draped with Spanish moss are a common sight in the American South. But to many of us who live without it, it is an enchanting phenomenon.

Spanish moss, or Tillandsia usneoides, is an epiphyte, an organism often dubbed “airplant” for the way it derives its nutrients not from soil but from air. Other epiphytes include lichen, orchids and bromeliads.

The moss does not steal nutrients from the host tree, so it is not a parasite.

And, as the guides readily say in the Okefenokee Swamp, it’s not Spanish and it’s not a moss.

It is native to the Southeast U.S. and tropical Americas, and is a bromeliad.

More info: Spanish Moss Wikipedia

In Georgia, where all these photos are from, you see it languidly cloaked on oaks and bald cypress the most, but other trees don it too.

Unlike many plants, it has no roots. Instead, it absorbs nutrients and moisture through minute scales, called Trichomes. The cupped scales trap water until the plant can absorb it. It can absorb ten times its weight in water. I’ve included a magnified photo, at the end, showing the scales.

When it’s dry, Spanish moss is gray, but when it’s wet and holding water, it has a gray-green look to it.

For propagating, Spanish moss has tiny seeds with feathery appendages, like dandelion seeds, that float through the air spreading the seeds. Wind and animals do most of the distributing.

Over time the moss accumulates, like in the above photos. But it starts out as mere tendrils. On the right side of this photo below you see threads of it, so delicate the sun shines through it.

Some creatures–bats, snakes, frogs, spiders and insects–live in the moss.

Others use it for cover.

Birds use it for nesting material.

Humans have been finding uses for Spanish moss for centuries. Clothing, rope, stuffing for pillows and mattresses, as healing teas, for binding material in construction, and more. It was exported to England in the early 19th century for upholstery stuffing, and used by car makers for the same purpose in the early 20th century.

Typically the moss was soaked in water and then dried in the sun, removing its inhabitants. Once it was fully dried it was ready to use.

Today it is primarily used as mulch for gardening, or in crafts and floral arrangements.

A plant that glows in the sun, thrives without roots, gets its nutrients from the air, and is home to a myriad of wildlife. That’s a plant to be celebrated.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Spanish moss fragment
Courtesy Univ. of Houston. uh.edu

Spooky Nights

No tricks this Halloween, but I do have a treat for you. I’ll take you on some spooky night walks here, and you won’t get hurt because it’s only photographs.

You are perfectly safe, for example, from this hyena.

Going into the wilderness at night is a great way to see the nocturnal creatures. They come out of their holes and caves and hiding places, and start their evening hunt. It can, however, be a bit unsettling for humans.

Darkness adds to the fright factor, of course. When it’s completely dark and you can see nothing but beady eyes in the grass, it can put you on edge. Those bright eyes could be a harmless night bird…

or a pair of leopards hungrily searching for dinner.

When I first saw this creature (below) in Australia, I gasped, thinking it was a very large rat.

It is a bandicoot, in the marsupial family, and not Rodentia at all. They are nocturnal omnivores.

Whether you’re in a rainforest or on the open plains, if it is dark, the night sounds can be bone-chilling. High-pitched screeching, deep howls and roars are hair-raising.

Hyenas, with their maniacal whoops and growls and laughs, are the opposite of a lullaby.

But worse: the feel of a bat’s wings fluttering inches from the face. It’s happened to me twice.

Bats have excellent echolocation skills, and are not hampered by their poor eyesight. Both times I was outdoors in a very dark place and a bat came so close I could feel and hear the whir of its wings. Both times I had a similar reaction: I was momentarily vexed, then thrilled.

The truth is, I love bats. I like all these animals I have mentioned. They’re all a part of this incredible earth, and even when there’s a moment of fright, it passes quickly.

I find it a privilege to be in the presence of an owl; but they, too, can have some tricks up their winged sleeves.

Owls have specialized feathers and are truly silent in their flight. There have been times when I heard an owl hoot on one side of me, and then suddenly I heard the bird on my other side. It soundlessly and invisibly flew right past me.

While owls are relatively quiet, here’s an owl that can have an alarming screech.

While barn owls shriek, there is another bird I’ve heard that not only shrieks, it also squeals like a pig.

The oilbird.

Enter a dark cave in a rainforest where oilbirds live, and this is what you’ll hear: press this link for a live recording.

Post I wrote Oilbirds in Trinidad

Even if it’s not nighttime, a forest is naturally dark due to the heavy tree canopy.

This big vulture gave me a start. I think I heard him shout, “Boo!”

And then there’s the Amazon, the rainforest of all rainforests. Camping there was a sleepless event, a place where daylight could not come fast enough.

I’ve had a rat come tumbling through the thatched roof into our hut, cockroaches as big as a chapstick scampering around my toothbrush, and howling monkeys that sounded like a Category 5 hurricane. All in the dark.

Big ol’ spiders in the Amazon too.

Even the trees in rainforests are threatening. Look at the thorns on this tree trunk!

They evolve with thorns for protection, which makes sense, but it doesn’t help if you are trying to steady yourself in deep mud.

So when the sun finally arrives, it is usually a relief. Because everything looks better in the daytime.

Except, maybe, for this marine iguana. Day or night, it has a look that will freeze you in place.

So there you go, my friends. A lot of spooky nights for you this Halloween, with none of the heart-thumping frights and gasps. Always remember, daylight is just around the corner.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless noted.

Driftwood Beach

Located on the U.S. Atlantic coast, Driftwood Beach immediately strikes you as a special place. Although it is one of many beaches in Georgia’s barrier islands, it stands out for the large, toppled trees that cover the sandy landscape.

Ocean tides and storms continually shape this Jekyll Island beach. Over the years the sand has eroded; removing the foundation for the roots to take hold, causing the trees to fall over.

I visited this unusual beach last week, following a family celebration.

The name implies ocean-drifted wood, but the trees that dominate the sandy expanse are not actually driftwood. They are prostrate pine, oak, and palm trees. This tree below, probably once an oak, still has the rootball intact.

The nature of coastal barrier islands is protection. There are approximately 14 barrier islands along the coast of Georgia, all of them coastal landforms created by waves and tidal action. The small islands, like Jekyll Island, take the brunt of the ocean’s wrath, protecting the mainland.

Jekyll Island is only seven miles (11 km) long and 1.5 miles (2.4 km) wide. While there are some hotels and human developments from various eras, there is a handsome array of natural sand dunes, marshes and wild habitats, attracting a wide array of wildlife.

My sister Nan spotted this skink on the trail leading to Driftwood Beach.

While many of the dead trees lie on the sand, there are also some dead ones that haven’t yet fallen. Giant, whole trees are standing, but lifeless.

My sister beside this tree demonstrates how huge the dead, standing tree is. Someday it will fall, but for now it remains solidly anchored in this spot.

There were dozens of dead trees dominating the beach. It was a unique sight. Most trees remained big and strong, not broken apart, and in spite of being leafless, they retained a proud elegance in their shapely limbs and roots.

Beachgoers strolled around the trees, some climbed on the trees, some sunbathed beside them, and children built sand castles in the fine, wet sand. Some people even host weddings here.

Osprey and pelicans sailed by. Willets and sandpipers scurried on the sand and rocks, while wading birds foraged on the adjacent marsh.

Across the waterway (St. Simons Sound) you can see another barrier island, St. Simon’s Island. Through this channel, cargo ships deliver goods, primarily automobiles. The yellow, arched structure seen from Jekyll Island is a giant crane. It’s one of the first things you see when you come out of the palmetto-studded trail and look out to sea.

The crane is straddling the shipwreck of the Golden Ray, a cargo ship that was carrying 4,200 cars when it capsized two years ago. The ship was improperly loaded and tipped over. Fortunately there were no fatalities, and clean-up of the shipwreck is nearly complete. The rusty heap to the right of the crane is what is left, and being cut, of the Golden Ray.

More Info: Golden Ray Wikipedia

More Info: Golden Isles of Georgia Wikipedia

We had a glorious day of ease and pleasure on Jekyll Island, watching birds, turtles, crabs, passing ships and ever-moving tides. But I’ll tell you more about this beautiful island another time.

For now, we’ll just bask in the briny air, expansive ocean, and lazing fallen trees of Driftwood Beach.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

San Francisco’s Ocean Beach

One of San Francisco’s most spacious venues is Ocean Beach, a long tract of fresh air and open skies. Today, as in centuries past, it attracts residents and tourists.

San Francisco is not the most populous city in the U.S. (it’s 17th), but it is definitely packed with people. There are almost 874,000 people on this small 47-square-mile (121 sq. km.) peninsula, making it the second most densely populated large city in the country.

When residents want to stretch out, they head for Ocean Beach. Folks of all ages can run or walk, plop down in the sand, share bonfires with friends, or sort out their congested thoughts. And you don’t have to fight for a parking space.

Cold Pacific currents arrive here fromĀ Alaska, making the waters at Ocean Beach numbingly inhospitable. With the frigid temperatures, frequent fog and strong winds, you won’t find many people in the water.

Surfers, of course, are the exception. But even the stalwart surfers, bounced around by brutal waves, wear wetsuits.

In addition to this five-mile stretch of sand, there are adjacent attractions too. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area has an extensive purview. Land’s End, the Cliff House, and Sutro Heights Park are on the northern end of the beach, while Fort Funston is at the southern end. All have stunning views and room to roam.

In the middle is the Beach Chalet restaurant, two towering windmills, and two streets leading the way to Golden Gate Park.

San Francisco’s longest beach also has a long history.

Sutro Baths was a glass-enclosed entertainment complex of numerous saltwater pools that opened in 1896.

Circa 1896, courtesy Wikipedia.

There is an entertaining film clip that Thomas Edison made in 1897 of the Sutro Baths, at this link:

Sutro Baths Wikipedia

The ruins of the Baths are still visible today.

It was in the later 1800s when railway and trolley lines were developed, delivering visitors from the city to this remote windswept expanse of sand dunes.

This began nearly a century of animated seaside attractions at Ocean Beach.

There have been several incarnations of The Cliff House, a restaurant that first opened in 1863.

This is the Cliff House, below, last week on a foggy day. It is undergoing another reincarnation and due to re-open next year.

And over the years, two additional fun spots drew visitors at Ocean Beach: Playland, a 10-acre amusement park from 1913-1972; and Fleishhacker Pool, then one of the largest outdoor swimming pools in the world, from 1925-1971.

If you talk to San Franciscans who spent their childhood days at Playland or Fleishhacker Pool, it is a great joy to watch their eyes light up.

This is Ocean Beach and Playland in the 1930s and 1940s.

Still left over from the glory days of Playland, the Camera Obscura, one of my personal favorite Ocean Beach spots, sits on a seaside perch behind the Cliff House. It is an old-fashioned pinhole camera that you walk into; it presents live-time images of the beach and sea.

Here is a link to a post I wrote about it: Camera Obscura, San Francisco

With today’s instantly available entertainment at our fingertips, the tranquility of Ocean Beach is now the draw.

And, as it has been for centuries, the wind and fog continue to embrace us, while the waves, as always, rhythmically shape this blessed expanse of ocean and sand.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

A Salute to Summer

As we say farewell to summer, here is a small sample of the wildlife who entertained us these past few months. Summer provided us with a celebrated array of birds, insects, mammals and reptiles.

At the beginning of the season in May, we watched dozens of birds nesting around our property.

We found these bluebird eggs inside one of our nest boxes.

In addition to the usual resident nesters–swallows, bluebirds, juncos, chickadees, titmice, jays, towhees, wrens, and more–we hosted numerous migrant species.

Flycatchers, an often-overlooked migrant bird, were in abundance.

This Pacific-slope flycatcher mother (below, in center) vigilantly protected her nest and brood for many weeks. She chose a completely burned tree in which to nest, probably for uninterrupted visibility of predators.

This flycatcher, like the other migrant birds, had an industrious summer routine. They arrived in May, prepared a nest and filled it with eggs; then assisted their fledglings to become strong and independent. In August they all headed back home.

On cue with the summer routine, black-headed Grosbeaks arrived, and produced young ones.

The violet-green swallows arrived in April, vying with the bluebirds for nest box real estate. By July the sky was filled with soaring, acrobatic juveniles.

We welcomed several warbler species as well. Although we don’t have the same volume of spring migrating warblers on the west coast as the east coast or Midwest, every year we have several species who migrate through in the shoulder seasons, like this hermit warbler and orange-crowned warbler.

They come in when we turn on the yard sprinkler, a favorite summer pastime for all of us.

Throughout the summer a pair of sibling Cooper’s hawks, born here in spring, were prevalent in our backyard. I wrote about them in a previous post: Cooper’s Hawks, The Next Generation.

Their new prowess started out clumsy, but quickly became skilled, intimidating the wise and wary California quail from nesting on our property. Fortunately we saw large quail coveys with chicks all over our mountain.

We didn’t see as many snakes this year, but we had an abundance of Western fence lizards. Now, in early September, we have lots of little pinky-sized baby lizards skittering across the dust and rocks.

Living in drought here in Northern California, we have had our difficulties with fire and smoke lately. So far, the worst fires are a couple hundred miles north of us. It is a tense and smoky situation for us, but disastrous for our friends in the north.

During this current drought, water is a precious commodity. Our humble water tray offerings attract an animated parade of wildlife, day and night.

A bobcat comes through several nights a week.

Other regular night creatures include great horned owls, who frequently serenade us with duets, and deafening cicada choruses throughout every night. Dark dawns bring us individual bats silently zig-zagging the sky.

For comical daytime entertainment, we have a quirky gray squirrel who has taken to covering his back and head with his tail. He does it all the time.

Maybe he’s just an odd dude, or maybe he’s decided to use his tail as an umbrella to shield from the blazing sun. Whatever his story, we love him. We call him Davy, for his resemblance to a Davy Crockett hat.

Brush rabbits appreciate the water tray too.

It’s been so hot and dry lately that birds we don’t ordinarily see at the water tray came in this summer for drinks and baths. The outdoor camera captures this screech owl at the water tray regularly.

Yesterday I noticed this Cooper’s hawk at the water tray for an hour. We have also watched him vigorously bathing here. On sizzling hot days, he stands right in the water, probably regulating his body temperature.

I do love summer for the plethora of wildlife and their activities, but I am looking forward to the fall, too. Cooler temperatures and some rain to douse the earth would be dreamy.

But what a lively and lovely summer it has been.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Those Who Drink Nectar

The world of plants and pollen is a grand one, covering all land on earth. Without pollinators we would not have plants, and without plants we would not have food. Here are a few of the beauties who drink nectar.

Birds, bats, bees, moths, butterflies, other insects and some small mammals consume nectar. By dipping into a flower head they are consuming the nectar and subsequently spreading the pollen that is stuck to their body, thereby pollinating.

Current sources say that 1 out of 3 bites of food we humans eat is due to a successful pollinator.

More info

Wikipedia Nectarivore and Wikipedia Nectar

Although there are many different kinds of nectar-feeders, or nectarivores, the majority are birds and insects.

Of the birds, there are three types who do most of the nectar drinking: hummingbirds, sunbirds and honeyeaters. Their bills are shaped for probing flowers; and their kidneys and digestive systems can absorb and break down sugar faster.

Hummingbirds. There are over 300 species in the world, and they all live in the Western Hemisphere.

In this photo, you can see pollen on the tip of the hummingbird’s bill. This punk-rocking hummingbird got what he set out to get.

Sunbirds. From the family Nectariniidae, sunbirds live in the Old World. Even their family name has the word “nectar” in it.

Many nectarivores, like this sunbird below, have a curved bill, perfect for reaching deep into a flower.

Honeyeaters. The honeyeater family is a large one, and includes 190 species of birds primarily in Australia and New Guinea. Notice the bill of this yellow-faced honeyeater, it is slightly down-curved to reach the pollen.

It is not just the hummingbirds, sunbirds, and honeyeaters who drink nectar. Other bird species also drink sweet flower nectar.

The honeycreeper species is endemic to Hawaii. You can see this Apapane, a honeycreeper, has a down-curved bill for foraging pollen.

Parrots have sticky tongues for reaching the nectar.

There are also many insects who drink nectar, primarily butterflies, moths and bees. They have a specialized feature for reaching into the flower called a proboscis.

You can see the dark proboscis on each of these two insects, below.

In this Painted Lady butterfly photo, you can see the white club-shaped antenna pointed upward, and the brown proboscis is curved downward at a 90 degree angle into a flower.

This hummingbird moth’s proboscis extends into the honeysuckle flower.

Insects who do not have a proboscis, like ants and beetles, crawl into the flower for their sweet treat.

Because nectar is a super sweet concentration of three kinds of sugar (sucrose, glucose, fructose), most nectarivores supplement their diet with protein (i.e. insects).

Similarly, butterflies use their proboscises to extract salts and amino acids from mud puddles, a process dubbed puddling.

Some small mammals drink nectar, too.

Bats are extremely important for pollinating plants on our planet. The largest bats in the world, flying foxes, are one of my favorite bat species. We saw numerous species in Australia.

They have tiny hairs on the end of their tongues to mop up nectar.

Across the world in Trinidad, the long-tongued bat uses its especially long tongue to reach far into the tropical flowers for nectar. We found these opportunistic long-tongued bats at the hummingbirds’ nectar feeder.

Another mammal who drinks nectar is the sugar glider.

A nocturnal arboreal mammal found in the rainforests of Australia, these marsupials have gliding membranes that extend from their forelegs to hindlegs, allowing them to fly from tree to tree evading predators and foraging for food. They are opportunistic feeders and have a large, varied diet including nectar and pollen.

Birds, butterflies, small mammals and even big mammals like humans, we like our sweets.

In a world that doesn’t always feel so sweet, it is fortunate we have nectar and pollinators.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.