Ngorongoro Crater

Lioness contemplating buffalo

Lioness contemplating buffalo

Ngorongoro Crater is the largest inactive unflooded caldera in the world, located in Tanzania, Africa.


An adventurous 112 mile (180 km) drive west from Arusha–half of which is a gravel road–took us to the rim of the Crater, where we stayed for three nights.


Part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Crater was formed three millions years ago when a volcano exploded and collapsed.  Crater info here.


African Ostrich

African Ostrich

Pronounced  en-gor’en-goro, it is 2,000′ deep (610m), with a floor of 100 square miles (260 sq. km).



Ngorongoro Crater, hippos and cattle egrets

Ngorongoro Crater, hippos and cattle egrets

Although it has been occupied in past centuries by hunter-gatherers, and pastoralist groups, no humans live here now.  Mammals, birds, and plants live inside the Crater–approximately 25,000 mammals, mostly ungulates.


NCA has formed a unique harmony here between wildlife, indigenous residents, and visitors to conserve this valuable land.


Zebra, juvenile is brown

Zebra, juvenile (ctr) is brown

Local Maasai are allowed to bring their cattle into the Crater to graze, but only for the day.  A limited amount of visitors are also allowed to visit, but only for the day, accompanied by guides.




Ten miles across, the Crater floor is open grassland; there are also acacia woodlands, and both fresh and alkaline lakes.


The rim elevation is approximately 8000′, and the descent into this unique ecosystem was majestic for its expansive, pastoral vista.


Some mammals migrate into the Crater, but mostly they do not come and go, because it is enclosed.  Unlike the adjacent Serengeti plains, the savanna is not endless due to the Crater walls, so some animals (like impala and crocodiles) do not live here.


Elephants in NC Lerai Forest

Elephants in NC Lerai Forest

A few of the residents include:  rhinos, hippos, buffalo, elephant, zebra, jackals, hyena, wildebeest, lions, and flamingos.


Due to the wild and dangerous nature of the animals, we stayed in the vehicles at all times, except for bathroom breaks and lunch time.


At lunch time the guides strategically parked the vehicles beside a hilly area, to have better sight of potential wildlife dangers.  Even then we had to eat quickly because the hawks swooped close to our heads for our food.


Farmer on the road to the crater

Farmer on the road to the Crater

To watch the lions stalking, the zebras dust bathing, hearing the buzz of hundreds of flamingos; listening to the howling hyenas in the dark morning — it’s remarkable.


Resting lioness


Ngorongoro, a Maasai word, translates:  Gift of Life.  And it truly is.



Photo credit:  Athena Alexander



Spring Warbler Migration

Yellow-rumped Warbler, California

Yellow-rumped Warbler in our black oak tree, CA. Photo by Athena Alexander

Brightly colored and about five inches long, they vary widely in markings.  Often called “the butterflies of the bird world,” warblers flit tirelessly through the trees, feeding mostly on insects.


These neotropical migrants have arrived for the spring in North America.  They spend their winters in Latin America, travel north for breeding.


We have slightly over 100 warbler species in the New World, and about 55 species travel to North America.  These tiny birds travel hundreds of miles every spring and every fall.


There are many different species of warblers in this world.  This family is classified as Parulidae, or New World warblers, and are not related to the warblers in the Old World or Australia.


More warbler info here.



Blackburnian Warbler, photo by W.H. Majoros. Courtesy Wikipedia

Here in northern California we have a few warblers living in our moderate winter climate year round.  Other warblers are passing through on their spring journey northward, and still others are settling into the backyard for summer breeding.


In the peak of the mating season (now), they are heartily singing from sunrise to dusk.  On still-dark spring mornings I stand on the deck and listen intently, identifying the newly arrived species.



Cerulean warbler. Courtesy Wikipedia

But it is the eastern U.S. that is the mecca for migrating warblers.  They generally land in about the same places every year, around the same time.  (Hotspot list below.)


Sometimes there are 20 or 30 different warbler species in one spot, and it is a frenzy trying to find or photograph these fast-moving tiny birds.


Dendroica tigrina FWS.jpg

Cape May warbler. Photo by S. Maslowski. Courtesy Wikipedia

I have traveled to some of the warbler migration hotspots in the U.S.  And I have also traveled to the warblers’ winter home territories in Central and South America, and Mexico.  It’s all fun.


Another great joy is greeting the spring warblers in our back yard.


They are attracted to our big black oak tree, specifically the leafroller worms:  deftly find a leaf in which the worm has rolled up, use their bill to snap up the tiny worm, slap it against the tree limb, then swallow it.


Every few days we linger, sometimes picnic, under the black oak tree, watching the warblers do their thing.


Below is a list of a few popular spring warbler hotspots.  If you live near one, you are lucky.


And whether you are a birder or not, take a moment to look up, there is magic happening in the trees.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

Migrating Warbler Hotspots and info:


Green Roofs and the Environment

Academy of Science green roof, San Francisco

Calif. Academy of Sciences green roof, San Francisco

As we celebrate Earth Day in an era when human population and cities are burgeoning, it is inspiring to see the growing utilization of green roofs.


A few of the environmental virtues of green roofs:

  • Reduce building heating and cooling, stormwater run off
  • Create native plantings and provide natural habitat for wildlife
  • Filter pollutants out of air and rainwater
  • Lower urban air temperatures
  • Transform carbon dioxide into oxygen

Click here for more info.


Toronto, Canada; Mtn Equip Co-op Store (MEC) roof. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Defined as a building roof partially or completely covered with vegetation and a growing medium, green roofs have become a new trend in the 21st century…but they are not new.


Until the late 1800s, sod roofs were the most common roof on Scandinavian log houses.  Sod roofs, made with birch bark, kept the house insulated from cold and moisture.


Osterdalen farmstead, Norsk Folkemuseum, Oslo, Norway. Courtesy Wikipedia

More here about the old sod roofs.


Eventually sod roofs fell out of vogue, but were revived in the 1960s in Germany.  Today Germany has the most green roofs in the world; where they are part of the landscaping apprentice education.


Calif. Acad. of Sciences, SF. Courtesy Wikipedia.

San Francisco’s natural history museum, The California Academy of Sciences, was completely renovated in 2008 due to earthquake damage.  This gave them an opportunity for new environmental upgrades, including a green roof.


SF Academy of Science. Green roof, "rolling hills" in center.

SF Academy of Science. Green roof, “rolling hills” in center.

In the center of this large city, the roof provides 2.5 acres (1 h) of rolling hills and fields.  A living science exhibit, the roof is open to museum viewers.


I visited there recently and not only was there a terrific view of Golden Gate Park, but white-crowned sparrows serenaded and butterflies fluttered past me.


Courtesy Wikipedia

The Academy reports 30-35% less energy consumption than required.  More Calif. Academy Living Roof info here.


Green roofs vary depending on the depth of the planting medium.  The deeper the layer of earth, the more installation and maintenance is required.  A waterproof membrane and root barrier are always involved.


Shasta Daisy

Shasta Daisy

Rooftop container gardens, though beautiful, are technically not green roofs.


Learning how to maximize our urban centers into earth-friendly expanses will go a long way toward supporting and enhancing our growing population.

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

Chicago City Hall. So many abundant flowering plants here, beekeepers harvest 200 lbs of honey/year. Courtesy Wikipedia



Band-tailed Pigeons

Band-tailed Pigeon pair

Band-tailed Pigeon pair

With the cool days waning and spring in full bloom, our wonderful large flocks of winter pigeons have now moved on.  But they’ll be back.


Unlike city pigeons, they live in oak and coniferous forests at altitudes of 3,000 to 12,000 feet (900-3,600m), primarily along the U.S. west coast and southwest, Mexico & South America.


The closest extant relative to the passenger pigeon, Patagioenas fasciata is the biggest pigeon in North America, measuring 13-16 inches long and weighing over eight ounces.


Band-tailed Pigeon, CA

Band-tailed Pigeon, CA

They winter here in northern California, and migrate in the spring (see map). A dozen or so live in our neighborhood year round.


Due to their nomadic nature (moving around to find food) their migration pattern is somewhat unpredictable.  More bird info here.


Perched flock of band-tailed pigeons

Perched flock of band-tailed pigeons

Named for a pale gray band at the tail tip, they mostly feed on seeds, acorns, and berries.


Like other doves and pigeons, the band-tailed pigeons have the ability to suck and swallow water without raising their heads.  If you ever watch a bird drink, they usually lift their heads to engage gravity–but not pigeons or doves.


Their large size makes them popular targets for hunters, and in the earlier decades of the 1900s there was a dramatic drop in their population.  Having just lost the passenger pigeon to extinction, public outrage at declining band-tailed pigeons triggered federal protection laws.


Band-tailed Pigeon Range Map

Migration Map. Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Since then the protection has been lifted.  Hunting is still allowed in some states (including California), but legal harvest limits were sharply reduced.


Other predators include hawks, falcons, and owls.


I always talk to neighbors about the birds, to heighten awareness and encourage stories.  Last summer an old-timer who has lived in our valley for many decades remarked that the band-tailed pigeon flocks are bigger now than they’ve ever been.


I smiled.  This probably has something to do with our “seed patch,” where we have scattered bird seed all winter long for 15 years.


Sometimes on rainy winter days after my morning walk I’ll be walking up the trail and accidentally startle the flock, and oh, what a spectacle.


30, sometimes 50, of these heavy birds all take off at once–bodies lifting in every direction, wings clapping, empty pine limbs bouncing.


And now we have the spring birds migrating in, warblers and songbirds.  But yesterday on my walk I heard one gentle coo above me.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Celebrating Survival in San Francisco

1906 EQ ceremony at Lotta's Fountain

1906 EQ commemoration at Lotta’s Fountain, 2014

Every April 18 since the 1906 earthquake there has been a commemoration in San Francisco celebrating the survival of this city and its people.


Since the earthquake hit at 5:12 a.m., the celebration begins at 4:30 in the morning at a historical fountain at Market and Kearny Streets.


Lotta's Fountain, SF

Lotta’s Fountain, SF

Cast iron and  24 feet high, Lotta’s Fountain was a meeting place, on that fatal day in 1906, for survivors to leave messages for loved ones.


Named after Lotta Crabtree, a vaudeville performer who donated it in 1875, the fountain is the site of much celebration every year.  (Fountain info here.)


Map of SF outlining the extent of fire in red. Courtesy of Wikipedia

The 1906 earthquake destroyed 80% of the city; approximately 3,000 people died.  Fires were the major destruction.  Over 100 years later, the earthquake remains the greatest loss of life from a natural disaster in California’s history.  More EQ info here.


Photo by Arnold Genthe, 1906 EQ fire. Courtesy Wikipedia

In researching my upcoming novel based in San Francisco, I visited the event in 2014.


As it goes every April, presenters dressed in period costumes made proclamations and acknowledgements, and gave an earthquake overview to the crowd of 75-100 people.


Survivors attend every year.  For the 2006 centennial celebration there were 11 survivors who attended, but each year the survivors are fewer.  This year, sadly, the last of the survivors passed away.


SF Mayor Ed Lee second from right

SF Mayor Ed Lee second from right

Mayor Ed Lee, the fire chief, and police chief spoke to our crowd about the importance of fire safety and awareness.


Then at 5:12 am, when the first historical tremor hit, loud sirens screamed out across the dark morning, followed by a moment of silence.



Attendee arriving in old motor car.

My favorite part:  the sing-along, made possible by lyrics printed and distributed to event goers.


We sang “San Francisco” as sung in the 1936 film classic by Jeanette MacDonald.  Everyone merrily joined in:  “Open your Golden Gate, You let nobody wait outside your door….”


SF-Lotta's-fountain,-crowdFollowing the Lotta’s Fountain celebration there were two more annual events that day:  the Golden Hydrant spray painting, and the Remembrance Bloody Mary Breakfast.


Golden Hydrant

Golden Hydrant

The Golden Hydrant attracts a few minutes of frivolity near Dolores Park.  It magically pumped out water when all water was thought to be depleted, and saved a neighborhood.


Following the hydrant event is the Bloody Mary Breakfast at Lefty O’Doul’s Pub.


SF-Lotta's-fountain-detailIt was clear to see the spirit of San Francisco that revived this devastated city in 1906 lives on to this day.


Watch for a scene of the 1906 commemoration in my new novel, Golden Gate Graveyard by Jet Eliot.  A mystery with history, due out later this year.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

Mission District burning in 1906 EQ, not far from the magic hydrant. Courtesy Wikipedia


Lotta’s Ftn in 1905, before the EQ. Courtesy Wikipedia


Mareeba Wetlands

Emu greets us Mareeba Wetlands

Emu greets us Mareeba Wetlands

After a dusty drive on an isolated road, we arrived at an Australian  wetland reserve where emus casually greeted us.


Along the way there had been dozens and dozens of refrigerator-size termite mounds.


Wandering Whistling Ducks, Australia

Wandering Whistling Ducks, Australia

Mareeba Wetlands, covering over 5,000 acres, is an hour’s drive inland from the Great Barrier Reef.  Located in the state of Queensland, it is in northeastern Australia.


Athena demonstrating perspective on a termite mound

Athena demonstrating perspective on a termite mound

Named for the closest town Mareeba, the reserve was established in 1996; after finding its designated purpose, a sugarcane field, was not agriculturally suitable.


Interconnected creeks and channels feed into lagoons, which vary in depth depending on the season.  Ospreys, sea eagles and many ducks, geese, and pelicans thrive here.  The waterways are surrounded by dry, outback scrubland.


More Mareeba Wetlands info here.


Mariba-AU,-lizardBoth times we visited, during a week in October, there was more wildlife than humans.  I find this thrilling.


Typical of most days of our three week visit, the sun was extremely intense, and the thermometer hovered around 100 degrees (F).



Gouldian Finch. Photo by Dave Watts

They also have a reintroduction program for a rare bird, the gouldian finch.  Listed as “near threatened” in the wild, they have a recovery aviary here.


The week before, we had spent a half day in extreme heat searching for a wild gouldian finch where it had reportedly been spotted.  We never found it.  We were happy to see this stunning bird in the reserve’s captive cage.


In addition to the finch reintroduction program, there are numerous environmental and wildlife programs in place, which is staffed largely by volunteers.


Nature Ctr. Photo courtesy Mareeba Wetlands.

We had found this remote reserve only because our bird guide drove us here for lunch one day.  Days later, sans guide, we drove out again.


After birding in the heat, what a joy it was to take off all our gear and relax in the shade with a cup of tea and a scone.


Emus at Mareeba Wetlands

Emus at Mareeba Wetlands

Emus milled around with ease.


There was so much freedom for the wildlife in this quirky, quiet place, that we even found a frog in the window blinds of the ladies room.


There was no end to the beauty and uniqueness in the Australian wilderness.


Frog in the ladies room

Frog in the ladies room

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted




Mareeba Australia

Mareeba Australia


A Morning in a Texas Swamp

Green anole

Green anole with orange dewlap

We were recently in Houston for a long weekend to attend a family wedding, but a few hours of fresh air and local flora and fauna was just the ticket for escaping stale hotel air.


Jones Park Trail, TX

Jesse Jones Park, TX

Originally built on swamps in the 1830s, Houston has developed into the fourth largest city in the U.S.


There are still some bayou waterways on the city outskirts, but much of this urban complex is now air-conditioned buildings and massive freeways.


Jesse H. Jones Park, cypress pond, TX

Jesse Jones Park, cypress pond, TX

It was with great joy, then, that we visited the Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center–a 300 acre park with a floodplain forest, cypress ponds, and more.  Park info here.


Here were large bald cypress trees at over 100 feet (30m) tall.  Taxodium distichum are deciduous conifer trees native to the southeastern U.S.  They are slow-growing and long-lived trees, prized for their water resistance.


Bald cypress knees in duckweed. Courtesy Wikipedia.

A peculiar feature, which was instantly noticeable on this humid April morning, were the cypress “knees.”  They are woody, knobby projections from the root system; functioning to supply oxygen and/or provide structural support.


This swampy world was active with wildlife activity.  Without binoculars or “the long lens,” we were fortunate to find a birder on the boardwalk.  She clarified the bird sounds we were puzzling over, and shared the current migration warbler news with us.

TX birdwatcher Chris

TX birdwatcher Chris


We also found leafcutter ants–my favorite ant in the world–which I have never seen in my home country.  I had only seen them in Central and South America.


Leafcutter ants transporting leaves. Courtesy Wikipedia

These impressive creatures carry leaf pieces much bigger than their bodies.  Second after humans, leafcutter ants “form the largest and most complex animal societies on Earth.”  (Wikipedia)


From 5+ feet above, the ants look like miniature leaves marching along the trail.  More leafcutter info here.  A post I wrote dedicated to leafcutters:  click here.


Lazily dangling in the cypress trees was spanish moss.  Numerous handsome anoles (lizards), two water snakes resting on logs, and sleepy slider turtles could be seen.  Croaking frogs and dozens of bird songs, including the chipper northern cardinal, filled the air.


JJ-Park-TX,-flowersAlthough we could have stayed in the park all day, soon the bride would be walking down the aisle.


After this lovely walk, we were content and revitalized– because this was the day we saw the real Texas, humid and redolent, rich with native flora and exotic wildlife.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted