Keel-billed Toucan

Keel-billed Toucan, Belize

Keel-billed Toucan, Belize

The national bird of Belize, the Keel-billed Toucan is a gregarious bird traveling in small flocks in the rainforest canopies of Central America.  Although we spotted them a few times every day in the Belizean rainforest, they are also found in parts of southern Mexico and northern South America.


The garishly colored bill takes up nearly one third of the bird’s body, measuring approximately 5-6 inches long (12-15 cm).  By looking at it one would think the bill is heavy…but it’s not.  It is a spongy and hollow bone covered with lightweight keratin.


Eating mostly fruit, Ramphastos sulfuratus can sit in one place in a fruit tree and reach out with the long bill and eat abundantly without wasting energy. Not strictly frugivorous (fruit-eating), they also use the bill to reach into deep holes to steal other birds’ food or eggs.  The bill is also used for regulating temperature, and, if necessary, territorial combat.


Rainforest tree canopies tower over 200 feet (60 m) high, making toucan photography and birding a challenge.  So I found myself constantly listening for the toucan.  Oddly, they sound like a frog; a low-pitched troik, troik.  Another tell-tale sign of their presence is dropping fruit and leaves, the result of their rummaging.


This national bird sports a yellow and green face, a giant green, red, and orange bill, and blue feet.  It is no wonder the good residents of Belize wear bright clothes and paint their houses in a lively kaleidoscope of colors.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Tule Elk

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

The tule elk are a thrill to be on the trail with, in one of my favorite places on earth:  Point Reyes National Seashore. This time of year the females and their calves are clustered together.  In the late summer or early fall, the rutting season begins.


Tule-Elk, Doe

Tule elk, female & calf, Pt. Reyes

Because it is the seashore, there is often dense fog.  It is surreal to hear those big bulls bugling, but not see them. It sounds like a whiney scream.


I’ve found that sometimes the moisture of fog can distort the direction of sounds, like with birds.  But not so with the strong voices of the elk.  That call comes blasting directly through the fog.


This is a comforting thing because I like knowing exactly where that 500 lb (226 kg) mammal is standing.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark, Colorado

Western Meadowlark, Colorado

The Western Meadlowlark, a medium-sized songbird, graces the U.S. from the Mississippi River westward.  They live in prairies and grasslands and are sometimes heard before they are seen.  Either way you find them, by sight or by sound, it is an earthly joy.


They feed on the ground, eating insects and grain seeds; and also nest there.  One of the best tools for identifying any kind of bird is where the bird was seen; that is, its behavior.  Birds that perch in tall trees or soar in updrafts, for example, are identified by these characteristics.  Other birds, like the meadowlark, are readily associated with the ground.


In 1844 John James Audubon reported a meadowlark west of the Mississippi that looked like the familiar Eastern Meadowlark, but sounded different.  Thereafter the meadowlark was the subject of debate for a century.  Today these two birds are identified separately and although there is some overlap in their territories, the two species are basically delineated by the Mississippi River.  In the same family as blackbirds and not at all related to larks, the meadowlark is strictly a New World bird.


A much-loved bird for its vibrant colors and soul-melting song, the Western Meadowlark is the state bird for six states:  Montana, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming.


Sturnella neglecta flocks can often be seen as you drive down quiet back roads surrounded by open, grassy areas.  The motion of the car will sometimes flush the birds, which is a great time to slow down and observe.  If you’re lucky, one may perch on a fence post and pose for you, while a few others darlings are hidden in the grass singing their flutey melodies.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander






Ollantaytambo, Peru

Ollantaytambo, Peru; background: Andes Mtns.

There’s a small old town hidden in a valley amidst the Andes Mountains in southern Peru called Ollantaytambo.  It is on the train route to Machu Picchu and most people do not stop here, but oh, what a wonderful place it is.


Approximately 37 miles (60 km) from the city of Cusco, Ollantaytambo (pronounced oyan-tay-tam’-bo) rests at an elevation of 9,160 feet (2,792 m).  It has an extensive history dating back to the 15th century, and provides a rare look into the Incan empire.  For more history on Ollantaytambo, click here.


Incan site, Ollantaytambo, Peru

Incan site, Ollantaytambo, Peru

When you visit here now you have the unique opportunity to walk through the ancient Incan sites, learning about a vanished culture, appreciating their architecture and craftsmanship.  Simultaneously a visitor can experience the activities and culture of the 21st century, strolling along the cobblestone roads, observing the vegetables and fruit that locals are selling beside the internet cafe. There are only a few such sites that still exist–including here and Machu Picchu–that offer a broad look at the Incan empire.


Ollantaytambo wall with some handholds still in place

Incan-built wall with a handhold (upper center) still in place

Most impressive is the architecture.  In the 15th century, local stones, often granite or limestone, were rolled up earthen beams on wood ramps; then cut with stone, bronze or copper tools.  Stones were usually split along the natural fracture lines.  Each large piece of stone weighing 500-2,000 pounds was moved via handholds, set into place, and then the handholds were shaved off creating a smooth wall.  Amazingly, the stones were laid without mortar and still, to this day, the walls have no fissures or gaps between stones.  Incan architecture is a vast subject, read more here.


Many people headed for Machu Picchu do not spend time here, which is why I liked it so much.  There is a peace among the narrow stone alleyways and the towering ruins.

Neighboring tow of Pisac, infant of working mother

Local infant protected in the shade


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Ollantaytambo woman

Ollantaytambo woman









Wandering alpacas at our hotel, Ollantaytambo

Grazing alpacas at our hotel, Ollantaytambo

Emerald Dove

Emerald Dove, Australia

Emerald Dove, Queensland, Australia

The Emerald Dove, also called the Green Pigeon, is an unusual pigeon in that it lives in tropical rainforests.  Although we are accustomed to–even cavalier–about  living with pigeons in urban settings, doves and pigeons are everywhere on this earth, with over 300 species.


So-named for his dazzling emerald back, Chalcophaps indica are common in northern and eastern Australia, as well as tropical Asia and India. Similar to many pigeons, they are about 10 inches (25 cm) long and sport numerous colors:  emerald, rufous, black, white, pink, and gray with a bright red bill and legs.  The male, seen here, has a white patch on his shoulder.


The sounds of the Australian rainforest are different than the Amazon, because the birds are different.  The whipbird, for example, lives here; it sounds like a really loud cracking whip.  With the many raucous sounds in this rainforest, the gentle, persistent, low cooing of the emerald dove lends a mellow accompaniment.


For an added delight, you may see this dove’s rich, verdant back flying low, weaving through this seemingly impenetrable forest.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Red-crested Cardinal

Red-crested Cardinal, Big Island

Red-crested Cardinal, Big Island

If you spend even a day in the Hawaiian Islands, you will see numerous exotic and colorful birds wherever you go.  The red-crested cardinal is common in the lowlands of the islands of Oahu and Maui, and on several other islands as well.


Their thick, strong bill indicates the bird is a seed-eater; so you will often see it on the ground searching for seeds, insects, and small arthropods.  They visit bird feeders, and frequent parks and lawns too.


Like most of the birds in Hawaii, Paroaria coronata was introduced to the Islands.  It was brought to Oahu in 1930 from Brazil.  Its native origin is in South America where they still live:  Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay.  Although the Red-crested looks similar to the all-red Northern Cardinal (found on all the main islands of Hawaii) they are not related.


Red-headed Cardinal, Hawaii

Red-crested Cardinal, Hawaii

One day while snorkeling on a beach in Maui, we noticed a red-crested cardinal (top photo) taking an interest in the fallen coconuts on the beach.  He liked the insects on the rotten fruit.  Locals don’t pay much attention to this bird because they see it often, but those of us who would never see one unless visiting South America, find them particularly dapper.  Even rotten coconuts on the sandy beach are wonderfully exotic to me.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Red-crested Cardinal, Oahu

Red-crested Cardinal, Oahu