Platypus, Australia

Platypus, Australia

Many people who live in Australia have never seen a platypus in the wild. They can be seen on the 20-cent coin, postage stamps of the past, and even as a mascot at national events.


But in the wild, the platypus eludes most people.




They are a unique egg-laying mammal with a large duck bill, fur and feet like otters, and a beaver-like paddle tail.


Only found in Australia, their unusual features baffled early naturalists, who didn’t know know how to characterize this “amphibious mole-like” animal (David Collins).


Other interesting features of the platypus include their ability to:

  • locate prey by detecting electric fields;
  • deliver venom powerful enough to kill smaller animals; and
  • use the front feet for propulsion, and the back feet and tail for steering.




Read more about the platypus here.


Our first trip Down Under, we spent an entire day at the Black Swamp searching for the platypus, to no avail.


Eleven years later, on our second trip, we made the playtpus a budgetary priority and hired a guide.


The guide drove us to a small river behind a housing development, where he had seen Ornithorhynchus anatinus before. It was 6 a.m., their hunting time.


Platypus print by John Gould, 1863. Courtesy Wikipedia.

When he told us what we had to do to see the “platy,” it was clear this wildlife adventure would be entirely without dignity.


Platypus are extremely shy and sensitive, so we could not utter a sound; and we could move only when the platypus was submerged.


If the platypus detected any movement, he would disappear into the riverbank mud.


Therefore, we had to freeze in place when the platypus lifted his head out of the water; and move only when he submerged.  “Just do as I do” said the guide.


Excellent swimmers, they paddle quickly along in the water hunting for crayfish and shrimp, their heads frenetically darting back and forth. After about a minute, they come up for air.


Within minutes we spotted one.  Below the water’s surface was the big bill and his 20-inch long (51 cm) body.


We tromped along the shore following him.


Then as soon as the animal lifted his head, came up for air…we stopped. Froze. When he’d go back under water, we’d run again.


Due to the rain, the grass was slippery and the trees limbs were hanging low.  So the three of us were ducking and sliding around, getting muddier by the moment. We each had on a backpack that was soaked and awkwardly swaying as we ran.


It would have helped to laugh at this silly escapade, but we couldn’t make a sound.


This stop-and-go game lasted for nearly one glorious hour, until it had become more light out. By then the platypus was done hunting, and people were heading for work and walking their dogs.


An elusive Australian mammal that lays eggs and looks like a duck, beaver, and otter…sure, I would make a fool of myself any day to see such a creature.

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Wicked WalkaboutAuthor’s Note: Jet’s mystery novel Wicked Walkabout is set in Australia. Purchase the e-book here for more Australian wildlife fun.





Distribution of the Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus).png

Platypus range, courtesy Wikipedia. Red=native, yellow=introduced.


Painted Reed Frog

Painted Reed Frog, Botswana, Africa

Painted Reed Frog, Botswana, Africa

This tiny frog, also called the marbled reed frog, can be found in African marshes, reed beds, and other water sources.


An abundant species in sub-Saharan Africa, Hyperolius marmoratus are insectivores; they eat crickets and a variety of other small insects.


Their colors and patterns are extremely variable.  And although their psychedelic backs look wild and dramatic, this tiny frog blends in to the surroundings.


Knowing what to look for, our guide hunted around in the marshy grass and found this frog in an instant.


Less than two inches long (43 mm) and hidden on a reed, he was quietly resting in the sun.


Frogs are fascinating creatures for their calls.  This species spends the day basking, and then at night the male takes up his specific calling site.


He calls consistently from dusk to midnight.  This occurs for a few nights in a row, and eventually the female makes her selection.  The eggs are laid in the water, between 150 and 650 eggs.


More about the African painted reed frog here.


The frog has a relatively large vocal sac that amplifies his call.  During mating season when all the frogs are calling, the chorus is loud and constant.


Walking to my tent after dinner in the dark, the striking chorus emanating from the reeds (that are silent during the day) stopped me in my tracks. We visitors do not linger, however, outdoors in the dark in Africa.


Click on this BBC You Tube clip to hear and see this delightful frog.


A wildly-patterned thumb-sized frog that fills the African night with his earnest song…another reminder of the grandness of life on earth.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander




Red’s Java House

Red's Java House, San Francisco, California

Red’s Java House, San Francisco, California

Red’s Java House is a San Francisco waterfront restaurant that opened in the 1930s, serving breakfast to the longshoremen and sailors.


In a city where the ruthless competition for Michelin star ratings and world-famous chefs never ends, there are plenty of eateries you can go to for the most delectable food.


Red’s is not one of them.


Inside Red's

Inside Red’s

Patrons go to Red’s for old San Francisco ambience, a bit of the bay, or a rowdy double cheeseburger and beer before the Giants game.  I don’t think there’s a big to-do about the java either.


Located on Pier 30, Red’s Java House started out as Franco’s in the 1930s.  In 1955 the namesake owner Red McGarvey bought it with his brother.  There have been many owners since, but the name has not changed.


SF mayor poster, inside Red's

SF mayor poster, inside Red’s

In fact there is very little about Red’s that has changed over the decades.  That is its charm.


The interior is loaded with San Francisco memorabilia and ornery posters.


There’s only one bathroom and the kitchen is tiny.


It survived the longshoreman waterfront strike of 1934, and a big waterfront fire in 1984.  It also survived the 6.9 earthquake of 1989, serving coffee the next day despite no electricity.


1906 EQ photo, inside Red's

1906 EQ photo of the Ferry Bldg, inside Red’s

After that, the nearby Embarcadero Freeway was torn down due to earthquake damage, and Red’s was suddenly valuable waterfront real estate.  The neighborhood began to change.


Red’s survived the gentrification too.


While the surrounding neighborhood turned into hipster restaurants and expensive condos, and working ships were replaced by cruise ships, the little shack on the bay continued attracting old regulars and famous San Franciscans too (like 49er greats Joe Montana and Jerry Rice).


More info: Red’s Java House


One morning I was near there at 5:00 a.m. for another San Francisco tradition–the 1906 earthquake anniversary. I was doing research for my new novel, Golden Gate Graveyard, due out next month.


Afterwards, there was no place more appropriate for a San Francisco breakfast than Red’s Java House.  The sun was rising and putting on a show outside the Java House window; the bay was calm, gulls were squawking.


San Franciscans of old and new visit Red’s with a smile on their face, happy to see this spirited restaurant still exists. We take in the briny sea air and bellowing fog horns, and enjoy this crusty old shack.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

Photo: Brandon Doran. Courtesy


Chinchero, Peru

Chinchero, Peru

Chinchero, Peru

On our way to Cusco, Peru, we passed through the beautiful town of Chinchero.  It is a small town in the Andes Mountains of southern Peru, about 40 minutes from Cusco.


Residents here are indigenous Quechua, members of a South American Indian people. Quechua was the language of the Inca Empire; and is still the major language.


Chinchero, Peru

Chinchero, Peru

Farming and textiles are prevalent, another trend that has not changed over the centuries.


More Quechua information here.


Due to the isolated mountain location, outsider inaccessibility and a history of proven success in sustainability have preserved their way of life.


Peru, maize and grains

Peru, maize and grains

Farming is terraced; and crops include potatoes, maize, quinoa and other grains.


With the severe sloping pitch of the mountains, terracing makes use of the slope by decreasing erosion and increasing irrigation.


Peru, Quechua woman and farm

Peru, Quechua woman and farm

It was common to see Quechua women on the steep hillsides dressed in traditional clothing as they turned hay and tended crops.


They wore flared skirts and festively-colored tops, sandals made from recycled tires, sometimes a bowler hat.


Andes woman (photo: B. Page)

Andes woman (photo: B. Page)

Weavers (women) were often seated on the ground using a nearby post to weave.  Their skilled hands moved quickly and deftly, while their children cheerfully played.


A traditional handicraft, the wool is weaved from llamas and alpacas; and other South American camelids:  guanacos and vicunas.


Peru weaver

Peru weaver

Natural dyes and elaborate patterns highlight this craft.


The Chinchero town square was a popular gathering place and market; set on a flat, grassy terrace surrounded by the towering mountains, and flanked by an old adobe church built by the Spanish in 1607.


Chinchero plaza

Chinchero plaza

In the Andes we walk slowly because the high altitude  (12,343 ft. or 3,762m) makes it difficult to catch your breath. Natives don’t struggle with breathing…visitors do.


So we ambled around the plaza, admiring the wares and the mountain setting too.


Jet with the woman who crafted her just-purchased alpaca cape

Jet with the woman who crafted her just-purchased alpaca cape

Merchants spoke Quechuan and even our Spanish words were ineffective. But it was easy for them to display and express their weaving skills and earnest kindness.


Thanks for sharing this stroll through Chinchero.


Weavers in nearby Cusco

Weavers in nearby Cusco

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.


Willow Ptarmigan

Willow ptarmigan, Alaska in August

Willow ptarmigan, Alaska in August

The willow ptarmigan is a short, stocky game bird in the grouse family.  They reside in open tundra and arctic conditions in both the eastern and western hemispheres.


See maps below.


Each year they molt twice. In summer they are mottled brown or gray, in winter they are white.  This gives them camouflage in all seasons.


Denali Alaska, ptarmigan

Denali NP, Alaska. Site where we found the ptarmigan.

Ground birds are vulnerable, so their camouflage is a handy natural defense. They can also fly to escape predators (fox, eagles).


The state bird of Alaska, willow ptarmigan are not found elsewhere in the United States; but are found in many of the Canadian provinces, and other parts of the world.


There are only three species of ptarmigan in the world, and Denali is home to all of them:  willow, rock, and white-tailed.


In Great Britain, Lagopus lagopus are referred to as the Red Grouse; there they do not change seasonal coats.


Willow Ptarmigan, Alaska

Willow Ptarmigan, Alaska

Primarily vegetarian, willow ptarmigan feed on willow, alder, birch, berries, and some insects.  Wikipedia overview here.


A successful species, the willow ptarmigan (pronounced with a silent “p”) is widespread with an estimated global population of 50 million.


You will only see them, however, in the northern hemisphere.



Willow Ptarmigan, Alaska

The heavily feathered feet act as snowshoes, allowing the birds to walk over fresh snow drifts. The plumage is thick and holds in warmth.


We came across these willow ptarmigan in Denali National Park where they blended in perfectly.


There was no one around and the birds were barely visible; but we were on the lookout for them, and had a heyday here.  I was very happy because they were a “lifer” for me.


Willow Ptarmigan

Willow Ptarmigan in winter. Photo: Robert McDonald. Courtesy

They lay their eggs in shallow ground depressions, and in winter will burrow into snow drifts to sleep.


A furry-footed bird that effortlessly changes colors with the seasons, sleeps in snow drifts, and has built-in snowshoes.  Pretty incredible.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus distribution in North America map.png

Lagopus lagopus distribution, North America. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus distribution in Europe map.png

Lagopus lagopus distribution Europe and east. Courtesy Wikipedia.



Watching Elephants Eat

African elephant, Zambia

African elephant, Zambia

As the largest land animal on the planet, the African elephant spends a lot of time browsing. They are a fascinating mammal to watch eat because of the many ways they use their trunk.


The trunk is an extension of the upper lip and contains nostrils and two small finger-like projections at the tip for handling small objects.  They use the prehensile trunk to breathe, forage, touch, shower, grasp, drink, and amplify sound.


African elephant, Zambia

African elephant, Zambia

A very complex tool with an astonishing 150,000 muscle fibers, the trunk, or proboscis, serves the elephant as a fifth appendage.


The earth was once home to many members of the Proboscidea family (trunked mammals), but elephants are now the only surviving species.


African elephant, Zambia

African elephant, Zambia

The teeth of Loxodonta africana are so essential that they have several sets in a lifetime.  One molar weighs about 11 pounds (5 kg).


Upper incisors grow into tusks on both the male and female; and are used for digging, foraging, fighting, and defending.


Weighing (male) 11,000-13,200 pounds (5,000-6,000kg), they eat roots, grasses, fruit, and bark; and can eat up to 300 pounds (136 kg) of vegetation a day.


African elephant, grey heron, Zambia

African elephant, grey heron, Zambia

Read more about the African elephant here.

More about elephant teeth and trunk here.


One day we sat in our jeep under the hot midday sun, watching the elephants browse the surrounding forest and shallow lake bottom.  We were in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, and we did this for hours.


Athena, Zambia

Athena, Zambia

They were relaxed and protected, the herd spread out around the whole lake. Grey heron, kingfishers, jacana, ibis, and other birds quietly foraged too.


The African elephant population, as everyone is aware, is dwindling and this is a sad fact. Much has been done to protect this distinguished creature.


African elephant adult and calf, Zambia

African elephant adult and calf, Zambia

But on this day under the African sun, they taught their youth and fed themselves and everything was right in the world.


African Elephant distribution map.svg

2007 Loxodonta distribution. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander


Point Lobos

Point Lobos, California

Point Lobos, California

Point Lobos State Reserve is a nature reserve with stunning ocean vistas, craggy rocks, marine mammals, trails, beaches, and tidepools.



Harbor seal, Pt. Lobos

Harbor seal, Pt. Lobos

In addition to over 500 acres of protected land, it is a large marine reserve.  With 750 protected underwater acres, it was designated America’s first underwater reserve in 1973.


Located at the north end of the Big Sur coast, it is a 20-30 minute drive south of Monterey on Highway 1.


Kelp forest, Point Lobos

Kelp forest, Point Lobos

It’s another story of a hero behind the scenes.


By the late 1800s, Point Lobos had already been a livestock pasture, whaling station, abalone cannery, granite quarry, and a shipping point for mined coal.


Then it had been subdivided into 1,000 residential lots, when a man with a vision took action.


Alexander Allan bought the parcel and began to buy back the lots. The Save the Redwoods League also engaged in the effort, and by 1933 Point Lobos became part of the state park program; later expanding more acreage.


Black-crowned Night-Heron, Point Lobos

Black-crowned Night-Heron, Point Lobos tide pool. Notice the kelp?

Here you can see sea lions, harbor seals, and sea otters frolicking among the splashing waves and barnacled rocks.


In winter, migrating gray whales can be seen, blue and humpback whales also pass by.  Birds abound.


Extensive kelp forests sway in the ocean waves, adding nutrients and wildlife protection to these deep blue waters. Star fish, sea urchins, and colorful algae are easily observed when the tide ebbs.


Monterey cypress trees can also be found here, one of only two places in the world where this wind-sculpted tree exists.


Point Lobos Foundation website and more information.


Sea Lions, Point Lobos

Sea Lions, Point Lobos

I go to Monterey every few years.  Sometimes I don’t have time for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but I never skip Point Lobos.


Every visit is glorious at this nature-filled wonderland by the sea.


Cupressus macrocarpa range map 3.png

Courtesy Wikipedia

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander