The Gifts of the Crane

Sandhill Cranes, California

Sandhill Cranes, California

I live near a region of northern California on a bird migration belt called the Pacific Flyway.  Every winter for over 20 years I have driven a few hours north in search of the sandhill crane.


When I am in their neighborhood, they are present, even though I cannot always see them.  They winter here to escape the cold extremes of the northern U.S. and Canada.  But it is often raining with low fog when they visit, and they fly high, invisible.


Sandhill Cranes, Lodi, Calif.

Sandhill Cranes, Lodi, Calif.

But if I stay still and listen carefully, I hear them.  Their sound is distinct, a mixture of gobbling and bugling.  It is not loud, nor low, and sometimes not even audible, unless I stay still and concentrate.  (Click to hear)


Regardless of inclement weather, at dusk they come in to roost in the flooded rice fields.  Even though it is almost dark, they are now visible.  Grus canadensis is nearly four feet tall and weighs 6-10 pounds; a big bird with a red forehead.  For one magical hour, pairs and groups gregariously descend from the sky, gathering, calling, settling in for the cold night.


When they are invisible, they can be heard; when it gets dark, they appear.


There are 15 species of cranes in the world.  Every crane I have ever observed is a strong and elegant creature.


Crane and Deer. Photo: Athena Alexander

Grey-crowned crane, Zambia, Africa

Cultures all over the world revere the crane.  Although there is a slight variation in all the interpretations, they are considered the symbol of luck, longevity, and fidelity.


Poised for their arrival, my rain slicker dripping, I stand beside the muddy California rice field at dusk, waiting and listening…and thinking about this.  What does luck mean?  To me it means you prioritize your dreams and desires, and go forth to meet them.


Wattled Cranes, Botswana, Africa

Wattled Cranes, Botswana, Africa

What does longevity mean?  When you stay connected to each moment of each day, the richness of this passion makes each day a lifetime.


And fidelity?  Stay true to yourself and the song that sings within your heart.


Whooping Cranes, Horicon Wildlife Refuge, Wisc.

Whooping Cranes, Horicon Wildlife Refuge, Wisc.

These are the gifts of the crane — and as we venture forward into the new year, I give this gift to you….


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander


Celebrating the Endangered Species Act

Nene, Kauai, Hawaii

Nene, Kauai, Hawaii

All the creatures photographed in this post were nearly exterminated to extinction if it had not been for this law.


Today marks the 42nd anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the most important U.S. law for protecting wildlife and plants.


Enacted by the 93rd United States Congress and signed by President Nixon on December 28, 1973, the Act is administered by two federal agencies:  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


Bald Eagle, Calif.

Bald Eagle, Calif.

ESA protects endangered vertebrates, invertebrates, non-flowering plants and flowering plants.


Originally developed to protect U.S. species, there are further worldwide extensions today.  Read more here.


Grizzly Bear, Denali NP, Alaska

Grizzly Bear, Denali NP, Alaska

In the 1950s and 1960s the American alligator, victim of a highly profitable trade, was hunted nearly to extinction.


Then legislation was set into place, and today there are over a million alligators in the southern U.S.


Stuffed Passenger Pigeon, in Audubon's house in Audubon, PA

Pre-ESA — Passenger Pigeons went extinct. Embalmed, in Audubon’s house, Audubon, PA

Scientists and citizens first became alert to the possibility of animal extinction in the early 1900s.  At that time the passenger pigeon, a bird species that graced North America in flocks of billions, was disappearing.


Early conservationists passed legislation in a few states, but it was disregarded; the efforts, futile.  In the end, one man, Charles Whitman, had about a dozen passenger pigeons left, in captivity.


His many attempts to breed, even cross-breed with other doves, were unsuccessful because this highly gregarious bird only gathered and bred in large numbers.  In 1903 they stopped breeding and gradually died.   The sole surviving female was housed in the Cincinnati Zoo for 29 years, before she died on September 1, 1914.


Bison Bull, Yellowstone, WY, USA

Bison Bull, Yellowstone, WY, USA

The American bison is another example.  It roamed the early American grasslands in massive herds.  Before 1800, there were 60,000,000 bison; by 1900 there were 300.


Wolf, Denali, Alaska

Wolf, Denali, Alaska

Habitat loss was and still is a major threat.  Other problems include pesticides, over-hunting, poaching, harvesting, and disease.


The Act is designed not only to protect species, but to recover species, by protecting and recovering habitat.


Whooping Cranes, Horicon Wildlife Refuge, Wisc.

Whooping Cranes, Horicon Wildlife Refuge, Wisc.

As the earth’s surface becomes more human populated (7.3 billion and growing), the crunch for space becomes more dramatic.


The importance of this law, therefore, continues to be paramount in protecting and maintaining species and their habitats.


Peregrine Falcon, Calif.

Peregrine Falcon, Calif.

A few notable recovered species include: bald eagle (417 in 1963 increased to 11,040 pairs in 2007); peregrine falcon, whooping crane, brown pelican, wolf, grizzly bear, gray whale, Hawaiian goose.


Click here for endangered or threatened list.


California Condor, Calif.

California Condor, Calif.

As a birder, it is shocking to witness beloved species and their decline.  There are native bird species in Hawaii that I easily spotted 20 years ago that I will probably never see again.


Fortunately there are ornithologists, scientists, legislators, and citizens who are active and vigilant in protecting our earth and our species.


What you can do:

  • support wildlife refuges and parks, wildlife-friendly organizations, even city bird cams.  (Note: if you use a park or refuge, don’t park your car outside the bounds to skirt the fee.  Pay the fee and help the beleaguered parks.)
  • educate and engage our children
  • respect pet leash laws
  • vote for laws and congressional representatives that advocate species protection
  • support bans on pesticides and lead ammunition
  • while traveling, avoid souvenirs made from animal parts
  • be aware of and report poaching and over-hunting
  • support human population control


Brown Pelicans, Calif.

Brown Pelicans, Calif.

I had lunch with elderly friends last week who were enthralled with the brown pelicans feeding outside the restaurant window.  They were unaware that these robust birds, in huge flocks that day, narrowly escaped extinction in our lifetime.  Tell everyone you know.


With the extensive dedication of scientists and citizens, in a variety of capacities, we can all pat ourselves on the back today, for continuing the efforts of our predecessor pioneers who started this effort over a century ago.  Let’s keep it going for future generations….


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander


Happy Winter Solstice

San Francisco City Hall

San Francisco City Hall, Calif.

San Francisco City Hall boasts festive color and light for our long nights.  With Earth’s gradual shift, nights will start to get shorter in the northern hemisphere.  More light will soon be here.


In the meantime, we celebrate the darkness, and other forms of light.

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander


The Night Before Christmas

Bobcat, California

Bobcat, California

‘Twas the night before Christmas

when all through the woods

every creature was stirring

to dig up their goods.

The children were nestled

all snug in their beds

while foxes and bobcats

danced on their sleds.

Then out on the lawn

there arose such a clatter

I sprang from my bed

to see what was the matter.

When what to my wandering eyes should appear

but a huge mountain lion,

I’d been waiting all year.

Just as I focused on this awesome cat

the sleigh and its reindeer

landed, oh drat.

Image result for free image santa winking


With a little ol’ driver

so lively and quick

I knew in a moment

it must be St. Nick.

The cat I had dreamed of

to the woods it had trot

but maybe my critter cam

got a good shot.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Poem credit:  Jet Eliot


Winter with Anna’s Hummingbirds

Anna's Hummingbird, Northern California

Anna’s Hummingbird in snow (male), Northern California

In some places on the west coast of North America, depending on latitude, the Anna’s hummingbird can be found all year long.


Interestingly, in the first half of the 20th century, Calypte anna were only seen in California and Baja California.  But with the planting of exotic flowering trees and gardens, this tiny, sparkling bird successfully expanded its breeding range.


Calypte anna map.svg

Anna’s range map. Green= breeding & wintering; Blue=wintering. Courtesy Wikipedia.

In addition to California and Baja, they now breed in several other westerm U.S. states and Canada.  They winter as far north as British Columbia.   More info about Anna’s Hummingbird here.


When we first moved to our property in northern California, we only had hummingbirds in the warm months.  At 2,300′ altitude, we have occasional winter snow and ice.  Calypte anna have a body temperature of approximately 107 degrees Fahrenheit, and need warmth.


But the hummingbirds, we knew, lived just 20 miles away in the lower elevations all year round, even the winter.


So we installed several nectar feeders, kept them filled and cleaned throughout the year, even though the hummingbirds were not present in winter.


Then male Anna’s started showing up at the feeders, and staying through the winter.  A few years later, the females wintered here too.  I am happy to report, they are now here rain or shine, summer or winter.


Yesterday I glanced over to see a male at the feeder, and then, as if to say hello, he lifted from the feeder, buzzed his wings and stayed in place.  At that moment the sun, in its low winter angle, came right through the fluttering wings.  There was no color because the sun was blinding, but instead it was an apparition — a tiny angel at our feeder.   Blissful.


For glorious year-round hummingbird watercolors: janetweightreed 10 at

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Celebrating the Wright Brothers

Dec. 17, 1903, the first flight. The Wright Flyer. Orville piloting, Wilbur running on side. Courtesy Wikipedia.

This week marks the anniversary of the first successful airplane flight on December 17, 1903.


The Wright Flyer, a 12 horsepower biplane with a four cylinder engine, was flown by two Americans:  Orville and Wilbur Wright. That day each man flew two times.  The best flight of the day peaked at 852 feet and lasted 59 seconds.


The Wright Flyer, designed and engineered by the Wright Brothers,  hangs proudly in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.  I have stood below this plane, made of wood and muslin; it looks like a fragile toy.  It is hard to believe anyone repeatedly endangered their life flying in it.    Click here for Wright Flyer info.


Wilbur (on L), age 42; Orville (R), age 38. 1909, Dayton OH. Courtesy David McCullough

Wilbur (on L), age 42; Orville (R), age 38. 1909, Dayton OH. Courtesy David McCullough

Earlier, in 1892 in Ohio, the two brothers, four years apart in age, had opened a bicycle shop.  Both men, mechanical by nature, sold and repaired bicycles, and eventually manufactured them as well.


Their work here funded their growing interests in flying; it also familiarized them with the mechanics of balance.


In the latter years of the 1800s, numerous inventors studied aeronautics–there were successes and failures (i.e. death) in unmanned flights and gliders.  Whereas other inventors paralleled their engineering designs on the locomotive, the Wright Brothers studied the mechanics of flying birds.


The Wrights were unique in their belief that pilot control was the most important aspect, as opposed to the most powerful engine.


Wright Bros. building their airplane

Wright Bros. building their airplane. Courtesy David McCullough.

In 1900 the brothers found an ideal place to implement experiments on the sands of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  They practiced flying with gliders.


The sand offered a softer landing, the beach offered wind.  “No bird soars in a calm” said Wilbur.


Over the years, the brothers built wings, propellers, three gliders, and a wind tunnel.  When they realized a suitably light engine was not available for their craft, they hired Charlie Taylor, their bicycle mechanic, to build an engine.


He built the engine in six weeks, based on the Wrights’ sketches; and would become a vital contributor in the years ahead.


Replica of Wright Bros. Wind Tunnel, VA Air & Space Museum. Courtesy Wikipedia.

More info here about the Wright Brothers.  Recommended reading:  “The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough, click here.


Orville Wright, Sept. 1908. Photo C.H. Claudy. Courtesy Wikipedia


This week we have the privilege of celebrating the anniversary; and honoring the genius, skill, courage, and tenacity of the Wright Brothers.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander or others as noted