“Ride, ride, ride hitchin’ a ride.”
This dazzling creature, the Violet-crowned Woodnymph, is a hummingbird. I saw it in Costa Rica performing a most unusual avian ritual.
I’ve seen hummingbirds occasionally flutter into the sprinkler in my backyard, they like to get mists of water in which to bathe, but it’s not very often. So when the woman behind the counter at our lodge told us hummingbirds dipped into their river streams, I had my doubts. Then she looked at her wristwatch and told us to “go around 4:00.” Oh, I see, hummingbirds that have a punctual schedule.
This trip to Costa Rica involved four different locations, an itinerary we carefully designed for multiple habitats thereby increasing the variety of birds and mammals. We had planned accommodations for more remote locations in order to get deeper into the rainforests. Generally the closer you want to be to wildlife, the farther away you get from humans. We had just arrived at a lodge called Rancho Naturalista on the Caribbean slopes.
Hummingbirds, from the family Trochilidae, are unique to the Americas, they only live in the western hemisphere. Although we have 20 or so hummingbird species in the United States, Central and South America boast many more. They feed on nectar (and insects too) and live and breed primarily in tropical locations. Countries closer to the equator have over a hundred different species, Costa Rica has about 50. People love hummingbirds. They’re brilliantly colored, small and cute, fast and bold. If you have ever watched even one hummingbird, however, you know they are not demure. They’re fiercely territorial and if they were anything but petite, they might scare the pants off you. There is such a deep affinity for hummingbirds that over the centuries this bird has acquired affectionate scientific names like Coquette, Fairy, Brilliant, Sunangel, and of course Woodnymph.
We’d had a full day on the road and bags to unpack, but it was close to 4 and we had to see these punctual hummingbirds. Under a dark tree canopy, we followed the narrow trail down the side of the slope, closed in by woody vines and an earthy wall thick with leaves. The jungle sounds were mysteriously loud and slightly intimidating. The humidity was heavy. Before long we came to a viewing deck. A small ribbon of light filtered into this oasis and the river was quietly flowing through the dense mass of trees.
There was so much going on down here, my eyes didn’t know what to follow first. Thinking back on it, it was just birds; but to a birder that’s like a movie buff going to Hollywood to a red carpet event. Hummingbirds were rocketing in every direction. Anyone who has watched a hummingbird knows that just seeing one is like trying to follow a flying mosquito. Then we saw it, just a few feet away: a hummingbird dipped into the shallow stream, once, then again, then again. It zoomed off and then another zoomed in.
We watched as the woodnymph hovered closer to the water’s surface, then dipped its body repeatedly into the river, a flurry of neon colors and splashes. Once the bird felt sufficiently wet, it zipped over to a vine and perched, preening. While one freshly-showered hummingbird perched, another shot past us and into the bath.
At the end of their day they come here to get cleaned up. They wash off the day’s challenges, take in some refreshment, and relax into the night…hmmm, sounds familiar.
I’ve been driving over the Golden Gate Bridge for decades and I still get a thrill each time. If you’re not at the wheel you can space-out on the giant orange suspension cables overhead, take in Alcatraz and the boats in the Bay below, ponder the Pacific Ocean, or delight in the sparkling (or foggy mystical) views of San Francisco and the Marin Headlands. For drivers:
- It costs $6 to cross (for two axle vehicles), unless you have a FasTrak transponder (then it’s $5).
- The cost to cross only applies to one way: heading southbound into San Francisco. Crossing north is free.
- The speed limit is 45 mph.
- The length is 1.7 miles.
- I have never seen anyone get a speeding ticket, probably because it is hazardous to stop traffic.
- There are six lanes of traffic for both directions and the dedicated number of lanes in each direction changes, depending on the flow of traffic. During morning rush hour, for example, there are four lanes going into the City and two lanes exiting the City. This is usually the opposite for the evening rush hour.
- There are no people in the toll booths. The toll booths are from yesteryear when humans collected money. Now it’s all electronic. That way we can zoom through really fast.
- If you don’t have a pre-purchased pass, there are other options for paying the toll, but cash is not an option.
- There are sidewalks on each side of the bridge. Usually one side is for bicyclists and the other side is for pedestrians, but this changes all the time and there’s a bunch of rules that most drivers know nothing about.
- If the fog is coming “into the Gate” at night it is going to be a cold night (and next morning) across most of the Bay Area.
- Most of us drivers have serious looks on our faces because we’re all concentrating. Well, not everyone. Some drivers are not paying attention (so much to take in!), you keep your distance from them.
- It’s exhilarating to walk the bridge and biking is big too. If you’re dressed appropriately (it’s windy, cold, and loud) the adventure is a lot more fun.
If you do make the crossing, I know you’ll have fun!
I find wild elephants fascinating to watch because of the communication they have between each other. If you are quiet and respectful, there are various “conversations” you get the privilege of observing. The most wonderful exchange I ever witnessed, one that I find soothing to my soul, was the time I watched a mother and her calf just six feet away from my door.
It was our second night in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia and I was awakened by what I thought must be a raging rain storm. It sounded like gushing water on our hay-like roof. uh-oh. I sat up under the mosquito net, puzzling this out, remembering I was in Africa somewhere, oh yeah, Zambia, but it’s the dry season, it can’t be rain. Within minutes we found the answer: outside our hut was a massive 12 foot elephant ravaging a tree.
It was past midnight and no other human was stirring. We could hear our friend snoring in the hut next door. The elephant’s solid body was a few feet from the balcony’s flimsy support beam (i.e. an old tree part). She could have demolished it just by turning in a different direction. Years earlier I had seen elephants invading our camp and they obliterated tall, strong trees in a single step as they innocently made their way to the river. The magnificence of this animal is breathtaking.
And I must admit, that night in Zambia I was indeed breathless. My partner and I looked at each other, wide-eyed but silent, wondering what to do. Cell phone reception, out of the question. The camp was nearly empty and everyone was asleep. And it was too dark for decent photos, yet a flash would scare her away. I remember looking above my head to see what could fall on me. It was the second floor. I wasn’t afraid though. Perhaps it was the mellow lunar essence that had washed over us, or maybe it was her hypnotic, steady breathing. Whispering, we made a decision to only snap one photo from a distance and not go outside, with hopes of her languishing here as long as possible.
And that was when the magic began because next we heard her faintly purr and rumble. It’s a sound exclusive to elephants and one that rests in a sweet place in my mind–the soft and gentle purring of a mega-ton mammal.
Then, from between our hut and our friends’ hut, a baby elephant came trotting onto the scene. What we had heard, we realized, was Mother Elephant calling her precocious offspring, this 250 pound baby. The calf nudged up to its mother and nursed, while the mother continued to chomp leaves and snap branches. They stayed there for another thrilling 15 or 20 minutes as we watched from our hut, mesmerized and delighted. Baby elephants are adorable creatures to watch. They don’t have muscle control yet in their trunk, so it flops around while they try to figure it out. They’re curious and playful, but clumsy. After Mother Elephant had annihilated most of the tree, they made their exit.
The next day in the morning light we examined the pitiful remainder of the tree, marveled at the giant foot prints, told our friends about the scene, and proudly presented our one photograph of evidence. After breakfast we saw the mother-calf pair again, the magical elephants who came to visit.