Take a Leap on Leap Day

Kangaroos, Australia

Kangaroos, Australia

February 29 will not happen again until 2020, so take a leap, do something different today.  Take a chance.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander





Lappet-faced Vulture

Lappet-faced Vultures, Kenya

Lappet-faced Vultures, Kenya

One of the largest vultures in Africa, Torgos tracheliotos, an Old World vulture, stands more than three feet tall and boasts a wingspan of nine feet.


We came upon this pair in a nest at the top of a thorny acacia tree.  The lappet-faced vulture is the most powerful and aggressive of the African vultures, with their large, arched bill and big size.  More lappet-faced info here.


Like all vultures, their bald head is crucial for hygiene and thermoregulation.  Old World Vultures (Europe, Africa, Asia) scavenge on carcasses of dead animals.  When a predator takes down a mammal on the African savanna, kills it, there is a succession of scavengers that follow.  Vultures are vital in this process.


It is a competitive frenzy, and not pretty.  But quickly the carcass is devoured.  One  time we came upon a pride of lions that had just killed an antelope.  The guide brought us back 24 hours later, and there was not even a bone fragment left in that spot.


One African vulture can consume two pounds of meat in a minute.  A productive wake of vultures can completely consume a dead wild zebra in 30 minutes (per Natl. Geo. Jan. 2016).


Impala prey, vultures

Impala prey, vultures

Even Charles Darwin called vultures “disgusting.”  But now people are finding out how important vultures are to the African eco-system.


Vultures prevent the spread of disease and insect populations, by quickly and efficiently eating dead carcasses.  This is important to humans, livestock, and other wild animals.  Equipped with powerful stomach acid, they can safely digest putrid carcasses loaded with bacteria, that would be lethal to other scavengers.


Unfortunately vultures are disappearing from the savanna at an alarming rate, largely due to poisoning, which accounts for 61% of vulture deaths.


African farmers, upset with lions for killing their cattle (their livelihood), use inexpensive and severely toxic poison to kill the lions.  Then the vultures die from eating the lion.


In addition, poachers poison vultures in order to prevent the overhead kettles of vultures from alerting game wardens of their illegal killing.


Most vultures reproduce relatively slowly, not reaching a sexual maturity until 5-7 years old, and only producing one chick every 1-2 years.


This combination of rapid decline, with slow maturation and breeding, has brought the African vulture population to a troubling point.  In October 2015 the lappet-faced status was listed as endangered.


Often times it is not easy to see the benefits of some creatures in the environment, until they begin to disappear and we see the ecological upset.


Fortunately the movement to save vultures and prevent poisonings has risen.  Groups like VulPro (click here) and many other conservationists are working toward preventing further decline.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander


Joys of the Pacific Flyway

American Wigeon, visiting from northern Canada & Alaska

American Wigeon, visiting from northern Canada & Alaska

Bird migration, one of the most fascinating natural phenomena we have on this earth, occurs all over the world.


Here in California and other western states, the Pacific Flyway, the migration route, has been loaded all winter with migratory birds.  Now, as winter  wanes, they are heading back to the northern climes to begin breeding.


Pacific Flyway mapOutside of North and South America, other routes exist:  east Atlantic, Mediterranean, Africa, Asia, and Australia.  For world migration map routes, click here.


Every winter for over 20 years I have visited migratory bird concentrations in the Pacific Flyway.  And every year it is a different party.


The migrations are all about the birds finding food; and many components contribute to migration success including weather, predators, stopover sites, etc.  More bird migration info here.


Sacramento Valley geese

Sacramento Valley geese

In long distance migration, the birds know when to start their journey based on change in daylight, lower temperatures, and changing food supply.


Migratory genetic predisposition and use of magnetic fields are something scientists are learning more about every year.


Snow geese, Sacramento Nat'l. Wildlife Refuge, CA

Snow geese, Sacramento Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, CA

This year we saw thousands of snow geese, as we do every year; but we also saw hundreds of white-fronted geese, which hasn’t always been the case.



White-faced Ibis

There were several dozen different duck species, as always, but this year we were also treated to a large number of white-faced ibis.


Bird migrations are something that most of us are vaguely aware of in our home region.  I was born and raised on the Mississippi Flyway; decades later I’m in a different area, and still the migration continues.

Ibis flock, Sacramento NWR

Large Ibis flock, Sacramento NWR



But this marvel is not to be taken for granted.  As birds lose their habitat to the growing human population, the already-arduous migrations become more difficult.  Global warming has changed the weather, the major factor in bird migration; and many other factors have altered on our earth.


Green-winged Teal, male

Green-winged Teal, male

Take a look at one of the maps here, it’s possible you have a migration within your reach, and it’s possible you might be dazzled.  U.S. migratory maps here.



White-fronted geese, Pacific Flyway

What a thrill for us to be part of this living miracle–and a testament to the endless beauties of life on earth.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Northern Pintail in Colusa Nat'l. Wildlife Refuge

Northern Pintail, Colusa Nat’l. WR, CA


Ring-necked Pheasant

Pheasant, California

Pheasant, California

Phasianus colchicus, also known as the common pheasant, is native to Asia, and was introduced in North America in the 1880s.


Due to their adaptability to many climates, and ability to breed in captivity, this well-known and widespread game bird can now be found across the globe. Between hybridization and captive breeding, there are about 30 subspecies.


Ring-necked pheasant, Mongolian subspecies; courtesy Wikipedia

The basis for this bird’s successful proliferation is its game bird status.   Since stone age times, and the Roman Empire too, this bird has been a popular game bird for hunters, for sport and food, then and now.


As a birder, I can never get enough of this exotic bird, and search earnestly for their presence when birding in marshes.  The showy male has a white neck ring and numerous colors, spotted patterns, a bright red wattle, and a long, streaked tail.  Gold, brown, green, purple, white, and red adorn the male; while the female has gold and brown with elaborately patterned markings.


They forage in fields on grain and seeds, and have an expansive diet including fruit, berries, invertebrates, and small vertebrates.  More pheasant info here.


Courtesy Wikipedia

In spite of their kaleidoscopic  colors, pheasant are skillful at hiding in the tall grass.  It is common to hear their call and lifting wings as they move further out of photographic range.  Click here for what we hear.


I also get a thrill out of hearing their cackling call on television shows.  It is frequently used as a general wildlife background sound byte in fictional British mysteries and other movies.  Sound engineers use it to evoke a frightening, mysterious presence.


Whether I am birding in the marshes, or watching British mysteries, two much-enjoyed activities, I am delightfully hosted by this elegant bird.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless noted otherwise

Liking Lichen

Rocks with moss and lichen, January, California

Rocks with moss and lichen, January, California

After several years of drought in northern California, this winter has been especially exciting for observing lichen and moss, due to recent rains.


Moss is a flowerless, living plant — very different than lichen.


Lichen are actually a union of two separate organisms:  fungi and algae.  It is a  symbiotic relationship in which a fungus pairs up with algae. Algae produce food by photosynthesis, for the fungus; and the fungus in turn gives the algae a place to live.


moss and lichen, California

moss and lichen, California

Lichen grows on almost any surface:  bark, moss, leaves, other lichen, walls, gravestones, roofs.  It grows in forests, arctic tundra, deserts, and cities; it can even survive unprotected in space.   For more info about lichen click here.

lichen, California

Lichen species vary depending on the host environment.  For instance, we have a lot of oakmoss lichen, Evernia prunastri, where I live.


It grows on the trunks and branches of oak trees.  It is found in many temperate mountain forests throughout the Northern Hemisphere, including other parts of North America, as well as France, Portugal, Spain, and much of Central Europe.


On my morning walks, especially after a windy night, I often find many small branches that have broken off the oak trees and blown to the ground.  They’re loaded with oakmoss lichen.  One year I found a hummingbird nest, made of this lichen, in an oak tree directly above a lot of these branches.


lichen, California

oakmoss lichen, California

About 6% of earth’s land surface is covered by lichen.  They are a pioneer species, meaning they are one of the first organisms to begin growing in an area that has been denuded by disaster.


3601563246 f770e6ccc7

Lace lichen, Courtesy inaturalist.org

Last month California became the first state with an official state lichen:  Ramalina menziesii, also known as lace lichen.  It ranges from Alaska to Baja California.


Lichen is eaten by some animals, used for nesting, contributes nitrogen to soils, and was once used as a form of dye.  In the past humans used it for food, but it is generally indigestible and mildly toxic.  It also serves as a sort of litmus for testing levels of air pollution.


Moss mustache, Costa Rica

Marino Chacon, bird guide, Savegre, Costa Rica with moss mustache

And for those of us who like to get silly in the woods, forest growth is an excellent source of entertainment.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted


Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday

Lincoln's House, Springfield, Illinois

Lincoln’s House, Springfield, Illinois

On this day in 1809, in a Kentucky one-room log cabin, Abraham Lincoln was born.


On a summer day a few years ago, I visited his Springfield home, the only house he ever owned, where he and Mary Todd lived for 17 years and raised their family.  Abraham Lincoln lived in Springfield from 1837 to 1861.


Old State Capitol, Springfield, Illinois

Old State Capitol, Springfield, Illinois

Within a few blocks of his home are his original law office and the Old Illinois State Capitol.  At this capitol building he practiced law in front of the Illinois Supreme Court, served as a state legislator, delivered speeches, and later had his informal headquarters for the 1860 presidential campaign.


This Old State Capitol building is also where, in 2007, then-senator Barack Obama announced his presidency, and in 2008, his running mate Joe Biden.  More about Springfield here.


Lincoln's house, 19th C., celebrating his announced presidency

Lincoln’s house, c. 1861, celebrating his presidency

The family left Springfield in 1861 when Lincoln was elected president, moved to the White House in Washington, D.C.


His presidency evolved during one of the most vitriolic periods of American history, and would eventually end in his assassination.  More about Lincoln here.


Their son Robert, the only Lincoln child who lived to adulthood, donated the house in 1887 to the State of Illinois.  The house, and a restored four block segment of the neighborhood, is now maintained by the U.S. National Park Service.  It is open to the public, and free of charge.  Lincoln House info here.


Athena and Abe having a chat

Athena and Abe having a chat

Happy Birthday Mr. Lincoln.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander except where noted



Lincoln's law office. Springfield, Illinois

Lincoln’s law office. Springfield, Illinois