Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch, California

Red-breasted Nuthatch, California

A songbird of the United States and Canada, the red-breasted nuthatch is a widespread visitor to forests as well as feeders throughout its large range.


They are migrants or year round visitors depending on the climate.  (See map below.)


Four nuthatch species occur in the U.S. and Canada (red- and white-breasted, pygmy, and brown-headed), and 28 species live around the world.  World nuthatch info here, including a description and image of each species.


In California we have the red-breasted nuthatch year round, and right now I am hearing them every day.  For such a little bird their voice carries far.


Sitta canadendis are only 4.5 inches (11 cm) long.  They eat insects in the summer, and conifer seeds in the winter.  More info here.


Most of their time is spent on tree trunks, used in numerous ways:  to forage for insects; wedge a hard seed in a bark crevice and crack it open; and store and hide seeds for later.


Nesting occurs usually in decaying wood and interestingly, they spread sticky pine pitch around the nest hole to deter predators.


Typical behavior is to systematically climb up the tree trunk, then flutter down, climb up, flutter down.  This can go on for several minutes.  Also known as the “upside-down bird,” they walk down the tree head first.


Sometimes they hang upside down in the tree branch, which is also comical.


Red-breasted Nuthatch, Wyoming

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Wyoming

Their call is distinctive.  It is described as sounding like a tin horn, or yank yank.


Here is what they sound like:  click here.


Temperatures are in the 90s (32 C) every day right now, so I take my morning walk very early, rarely see humans.  The red-breasted nuthatches, however, are always with me, though I cannot see them.


Somewhere out there is this tiny colorful bird snagging insects and busily going up and down tree trunks, and oh, they have so much to say.


Red-breasted Nuthatch Range Map

Range map. Courtesy

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander


Beisa Oryx

Oryx beisa, Kenya

Beisa Oryx, Kenya

Native to Africa, Beisa Oryx live in northeast Africa in dry savanna habitat.  We came upon this herd in Kenya, Samburu National Reserve.


Also known as East African oryx, there are two subspecies, this one is Oryx beisa beisa.  The Oryx is an antelope, and part of the Bovidae family; with three species in Africa and one in the Arabian peninsula.


A large antelope weighing around 175 pounds (79 kg), the beisa oryx eat grass and leaves, fruit and berries.  They are known for their ability to live in especially dry areas, going without water when necessary.


They endure extreme heat by allowing their body temperature to rise, and avoiding exertion and direct sunlight.


Beisa Oryx

Beisa Oryx

Their herds can number in the hundreds, but usually they gather in groups of 14 or so, like we found here.  They have an elaborate social hierarchy.  More info here.


Drawing by Rowland Ward. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Their exotic appearance with elegant markings is highlighted by the spear-like horns.  Each long horn is ringed.


Mammals with attractive horns have been targets for human hunting for centuries, and the oryx is no exception.  Conservation status for this species is Near Threatened.


East African oryx Oryx beisa distribution map.png

Beisa Oryx range (in brown) map. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The oryx is a striking animal to come upon with their large and muscular bodies, unusual markings, and long dagger horns.


We sat in the jeep and watched them in awe as they quietly grazed; all of us baking under the brutal African sun.  And yet, it was heaven on earth.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Bowerbird Bowers

Golden Bowerbird, Australia

Golden Bowerbird (male), Australia

Coming across a bower in the woods is like finding a secret castle in an enchanted forest.


Here is information about what a bower is, and a story about the day we found a rare bower.



Satin Bowerbird (male). Photo: Brett Donald. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The male bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea have fascinating and unusual courtship displays.


The fundamental reason males build bowers is to attract a female.  A polygamous species, the male’s goal is to fertilize as many females as possible.  The female’s goal is to build the nest and raise the chicks.


Satin Bowerbird range. Courtesy

By building a tremendous bower he is expressing his proud ability to produce quality offspring, while at the same time attracting multiple mates.


Satin Bowerbird bird, Queensland

Satin Bowerbird bower, Queensland

He builds the bower usually with sticks or tall grass, then decorates with objects he finds.


Some of the decorations are organic, like flowers or feathers; and some are inanimate treasures, often shiny, like drinking straws or candy wrappers.


Sometimes rival males will steal attractive items from another male’s bower.  More details here.


The male painstakingly builds the bower, arranging and rearranging his special creation.  The courtship unfolds:  first the female visits the bower when the male is absent.  If she likes it, she returns when the male is present, and watches his strutting and bowing display.


Next she visits multiple bowers, eventually makes her choice, copulation occurs, and off she goes to build her nest.  The bower is not the nest, it is just a showy structure for attracting females.


Each bowerbird species builds differently.  The satin bowerbird, for example, uses many blue objects.  You can see from Athena’s photo there’s even a blue clothespin!


Golden Bowerbird, Australia

Golden Bowerbird, Australia

It has been observed that as satin bowerbirds mature, they get more skillful at choosing bluer objects.


Charles Darwin wrote about the bowerbirds, and scientists have been avidly studying this courtship ritual ever since.


Jet in forest with Golden Bowerbird bower

Jet in Queensland rainforest beside Golden Bowerbird bower

We discovered the golden bowerbird’s bower was very different from the satin bowerbird’s.


They decorate with flowers (often white) and fruit.  The smallest bowerbird (9 in. or 24 cm), yet they build one of the largest bowers.  I kneeled beside the bower for size comparison.


The golden bowerbird is only found in a tiny area of Queensland in the Atherton Tablelands.  More info here.


Right after that photo of me was taken, we encountered a bit of bird drama.  We apparently, and unknowingly, came close to a cassowary’s nest.


In case you are unfamiliar with a cassowary, they are also a rare bird–an endangered species.  But unlike the petite golden bowerbird, the cassowary is over six feet tall (182 cm), weighs 187 pounds (85 kg), and can kick a person to death.


Southern Cassowary, Queensland, Australia

Southern Cassowary, Queensland, Australia

We had no intention of disturbing the cassowary, but he was unconcerned with our good intentions.  So we had to leave the special bower quickly and quietly, to find safety.


That was a hair-raising experience, because the cassowary didn’t just let us leave.  The guide warned us (whispered nervously) not to turn our backs on a cassowary.


So we backed up–surrendering, going now, bye bye.  As we backed up, he advanced.  We backed up more, he advanced more.


When it was clear this wasn’t working, our guide–a large man–stood beside a wide tree and told the two of us to back up behind his human shield.


We did this, wondering if we would ever see him again.


About ten minutes later the guide emerged safely from the jungle.  We three got quickly into the car, locked the doors, and sat there, stunned; eventually drove off.


Most of the time finding bowers isn’t so dangerous.  In fact it is perfectly delightful.



Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted


Black-headed Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

Here’s a bird I am fortunate to have residing in my backyard every summer.  They migrate here from Mexico every spring, mate up and breed, raise their chicks.


The new chicks right now are in their first few weeks of life.  They flutter helplessly on tree limbs, whistling an insistent mewing cry (“feed me feed me feed me”) until the parent brings food.


BH Grosbeak (female), California

BH Grosbeak (female), California

Black-headed grosbeaks prefer mixed forest habitat and oak woodlands for their summer breeding.  They can also be found in streamside corridors, pine woodlands, and suburban green areas.


They are not picky eaters or nesters, a fact that has stabilized their population.


More grosbeak info here.


In Mexico, during the winter months, they live in similar habitats in tropical and subtropical lowlands.  There they eat resident monarch butterflies, an insect that most birds and mammals strictly avoid due to toxicity. They eat the butterflies in eight day cycles to sufficiently eliminate toxins.


BH Grosbeak (juvenile), California

BH Grosbeak (juvenile), California

Pheucticus melanocephalus are classified in the same family as the northern cardinal, both songbirds of a similar size with seed-eating bills.


Named for their large beak, they crack seeds quickly and efficiently.  They also use that massive beak to crush and eat beetles and snails.


7.5 inches long (19cm), they have an extensive diet:  spiders and other insects, berries, grains, cultivated fruit in orchards, and wild fruit too.



Courtesy Wikipedia

They also voraciously eat sunflower seeds at feeders.  Now that the juveniles are eating, we fill a five pound feeder every other day!


They are animated and elegant, and conspicuous in their colorful plumage…and there’s more:  their sound.


Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a rare find in Calif., joins the Black-headed

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (left), a rare find in Calif., joins the Black-headed

Both genders fill the air with a sublime fluty warble.  Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate their song from a robin’s, until you hear their characteristic sharp “spik” contact call.  Long spring serenades thrill all of us, not just the intended.


Click here to hear adult’s song.


Soon they will be on their way and, if all goes right, they will return again next year.  In early April we will buy sunflower seeds, a pricier feeder endeavor, and keep special feeders filled for our grosbeak guests.


Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

Then we have four months of grosbeak glory…and at least twice as many of the species will fly back to Mexico.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander


Wildlife of Kenai Peninsula

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, Moose

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, Moose

Amid the craggy mountains and massive icefields of Alaska rests the Kenai Peninsula extending approximately 150 miles (240 km) into the Gulf of Alaska.


Surrounded by frigid waters teeming with sea life and the towering masses of the Kenai Mountains, the Peninsula is host to a plethora of wildlife.


Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

We first arrived on the Peninsula via the Seward Highway, a scenic highway traversing south from Anchorage to Seward.


The western side, protected by Cook Inlet, is marshy habitat, lakes, and rivers.  Here we saw moose wading in sparkling waters, grazing on marsh grass.  Chickadees danced in the foliage among numerous red berries and wildflowers.


Kenai, Humpback Whale

Kenai, Humpback Whale

The Peninsula’s eastern side is dominated by glaciers that originate from the Sargent and Harding Icefields.


The Harding Icefield, the largest icefield in the U.S., spawns 40 glaciers and receives up to 400 inches of snow a year.  Info here.


Kenai Fjords National Park is also on the eastern side, with a 700,000 acre expanse.  Formed by the movement of glaciers, slightly over half of the park is covered by ice.  The rest is loaded with wildlife.


Bald Eagle, Seward

Bald Eagle, Seward. This photo was snapped at 7:30pm, see how bright out it still is?

More about Kenai Fjords NP here.


Land mammals here include wolves, bears, moose; marine mammals include humpback whales and orcas, sea otters, sea lions, porpoises and dolphins; birds include puffins, murres, and bald eagles.



Kenai Peninsula, Otter

Visitors to this area enjoy kayaking, hiking, boating, fishing, and wildlife viewing to name just a few activities.  And in a land so far north, the days remain light until midnight–that leaves a lot of daylight for adventuring.


In Seward, one of the larger cities on the Peninsula, we enjoyed a day trip boat cruise where we saw glaciers and many species of mammals and birds.



Kenai Peninsula, Puffins

Even though it was August, we were in an arctic world, so the closer we got to the glacier, the colder it became.  Then the excitement began when we heard the thunder of the glacier calving, or breaking off.  Huge chunks of ice dramatically tumbled into the deep blue waters.


Kenai Peninsula, Alaska. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Majestic mountains and wildlife at every turn, in a world where the sun never sets — it’s incredible.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander


Stellar Sea Lions

Kenai Peninsula, Stellar Sea Lions


Vulturine Guineafowl

Vulturine Guineafowl, Kenya, Africa

Vulturine Guineafowl, Kenya, Africa

A dapper gamebird endemic to Africa, the vulturine guineafowl can be found primarily in the continent’s northeast.


They are in the Galliformes Order, a family of heavy-bodied ground-feeding birds, which include turkey, chicken, grouse, and quail.  The oldest of Galliformes birds, different species of guineafowl live across sub-Saharan Africa, usually in semi-open habitats like savanna.


Vulturine Guineafowl. Photo: Manfred Werner via Wikipedia.

Standing over two feet (61 cm) high, the vulturine guineafowl is the largest extant species of guineafowl. This long-tailed bird of dry bush has a blue featherless face and red eyes, and was named for the facial resemblance to a vulture.


They congregate in large flocks of a dozen or more, often scratching the ground.  The diet is seeds and small invertebrates like ticks, flies, and locusts; and they can go without drinking water for extended periods of time, getting their moisture from food.


Acryllium vulturinum live in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania.  More info here.


The vulturine guineafowl are not as commonly seen as other guineafowl species, like the helmeted.  We were lucky to see them in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. 


Here we were entertained for an hour watching a baby elephant roll around in a mud hole learning how to operate his trunk.  One dawn we found a lioness frantically calling for her lost cub.


There’s a lot to see in this national park, but never so much to fully distract from the stunning vulturine.  With brilliant cobalt blue and white markings, polka dots and stripes, they were a beautiful spectacle and welcomed sight.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted



Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

Horicon Marsh sunset, Wisconsin

Horicon Marsh sunset, Wisconsin

The largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States, Horicon Marsh covers 32,000 acres (12,949 ha).


Approximately 10,000 years ago it was shaped by the Wisconsin glacier during the Pleistocene era.  When the glacier receded, it left debris which re-shaped the area, eventually forming this marsh.


Dragonfly, Horicon Marsh, WI

Dragonfly, Horicon Marsh, WI

In unique cooperative management, this large wetland preserve is owned and managed by both state and federal governments.


It is also a Ramsar Site–a member of an international organization devoted to conserving the earth’s wetlands and the sustainable use of their resources.


Pied bill Grebe and chicks, Horicon Marsh, WI

Pied bill Grebe and chicks, Horicon Marsh, WI

Wetlands are vital to human survival for providing water and biological diversity for our plants and animals.  In past centuries it has been common for wetlands across the world to be filled in for development purposes.


In 1971 this degrading trend was addressed at the Ramsar Convention, by the signing of an international treaty established by UNESCO.  Today we have 2,231 Ramsar sites in the world protecting 531,118,440 acres (214,936,005 ha) of wetlands.  More Ramsar wetland info here.


Monarch Butterfly, Horicon Marsh, WI

Monarch Butterfly, Horicon Marsh, WI

Having grown up in the Horicon Marsh area, I am well aware it hasn’t always been a peaceful preserve filled with protected wildlife like it is today.


Over the centuries the marsh has been milled, dammed, undammed, drained, burned, and ignored.  Ducks were hunted to devastation.


Common Muskrat, Horicon Marsh, WI

Common Muskrat, Horicon Marsh, WI

Over the years conservationists struggled and fought to return the Horicon Marsh to its natural wetland origin.  But each new generation had industrious and prosperous plans for it, rather than let it remain a swampy marsh, something they considered at the time to be useless.


Finally in July of 1941, conservationists won the battle and the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge was established.  In 1990  it was designated a Ramsar site.


Eastern Red Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis

Eastern Red Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis

Today it is a paradise of protected birds and wildlife boasting 304 bird species; and numerous species of wetland mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.


More Horicon Marsh info here.


On a recent visit, every day I witnessed songbirds and waterfowl tending their nests, heard native frogs rhythmically bellow, saw turtles on logs basking in the sun.  The area was loaded with birds, including sandhill cranes ambling through the surrounding fields with their families.


Red-winged blackbird, Horicon Marsh, WI

Red-winged blackbird, Horicon Marsh, WI

Most prevalent was the classic wetland sound:  the fluty and constant trills of the red-winged blackbird.


Perhaps they were singing about the success and glory of this natural wetland.


Horicon Marsh, WI

Horicon Marsh, WI

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander