Touring the Balclutha

Balclutha in San Francisco Bay (Alcatraz in background)

Balclutha in San Francisco Bay (Alcatraz in background)

A three-masted ship built in 1886, the Balclutha sailed the world transporting cargo for nearly 50 years.


Now a museum moored in the San Francisco Bay, this rugged vessel takes visitors back to seafaring days.


Built in Glasgow, Scotland, the Balclutha made its maiden voyage to San Francisco in 1887.  It took 140 days and a crew of 26 men to transport the cargo of 1,650 tons of coal.

Original crew, 1887. Courtesy National Park Service

Coal, wine, whiskey and other European exports; wool from Australia and New Zealand; rice from Burma were all delivered to San Francisco in this ship.


Balclutha stern

Balclutha stern

The return trip to Europe included grain from San Francisco and timber from the Pacific Northwest.  Read more about the Balclutha here.


Balclutha Voyages map

Balclutha Voyages map

The ship passed through Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America 17 times in 13 years.



Balclutha deck

Balclutha deck (Golden Gate Bridge in background left)

A present-day walk on the long, wooden deck of this 301 foot (92m) ship is a humbling experience.


With 25 sails and a complex system of ropes and rigging, the ship traveled thousands of miles on treacherous seas completely propelled by wind.


The tallest mast is 145 feet (44m) high. Sailors climbed up there into the tangle of ropes to furl the sails, with gale-force winds and turbulent waters always threatening.


It was a tough life for sailors, working day and night on rough seas, sleeping on bunks or hammocks below deck in close quarters and filth, always away from family.

Aboard the Balclutha (then named the Star of Alaska), 1919. Courtesy National Park Service

In 1954 San Francisco’s Maritime Museum bought the ship, retired and  restored it, and in 1978 it was transferred to the National Park Service.


Still highly celebrated, the old ship today is regularly maintained and is in excellent shape.


In addition to daily public tours, the ship hosts overnight field trips for regional grade school students.


Balclutha rigging

Balclutha rigging (swimmer in water at far right)

Also, on the first Saturday night of every month San Franciscans board the Balclutha joining in free sing-alongs of old sea chanteys.


A hearty ship that continues to transport imaginations and share stories of maritime life, the Balclutha is a fun San Francisco adventure.


Balclutha Captain's Quarters

Balclutha Captain’s Quarters



Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted





The Grand Tetons

Teton mountain range at sunrise, WY

Teton mountain range at sunrise, WY

Located in Wyoming, this mountain range began forming 6-9 million years ago.  The Tetons are the youngest mountains in the Rocky Mountain range.


It is a unique mountain range due to its formation, and we had a mountain experience of an unusual nature.


A series of geological processes over millennium eventually led to the uplift of the region.  Situated on the Teton Fault, approximately two million years ago earthquakes displaced the range.


Fault block formation of the Teton Range and Jackson Hole. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The western side moved upward while the eastern side moved downward creating the Teton Range and Jackson Hole valley, respectively.


Most mountain ranges have foothills which often obscure much of the mountain.  But here the eastern side arose so quickly and sharply that there are no foothills.  In addition, the older the range is, the more eroded the peaks become.


But this range has no foothills, and is relatively young, creating high, craggy peaks that are prominent and stunning.


Moose, Grand Tetons

Moose, Grand Teton NP

More info here.


The highest peak is Grand Teton at 13,775 feet high (4,199 m).  Nine more peaks are over 12,000 feet high in this towering mountain range.


Visiting the Grand Tetons, only ten miles south of Yellowstone National Park, is an unforgettable experience because the mountains are always looming in your presence.


Great Spangled Fritillary (female)

Great Spangled Fritillary (female), Grand Teton NP

The geological mysteries one encounters while hiking or even driving in the valley are endless.


Mountain climbing is a favorite sport where 4,000 climbers a year attempt to summit the highest peak.


Grant Teton National Park combines with several other parks forming the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  This ecosystem covers nearly 18,000,000 acres (7,300,00 ha) of land.


Jackson Lake, Grand Tetons

Jackson Lake, Grand Tetons


Jackson Lake and Tetons

Jackson Lake and Tetons

Although I enjoyed lovely hikes and wildlife adventures here, the most unique moment was when we got caught in a thunderstorm.


Halfway through dinner at the Jackson Lake Lodge, gusting winds and angry dark clouds began brewing.  By the time we finished, a thunderstorm was close to erupting.


Jackson Lake Lodge lobby

Jackson Lake Lodge lobby

It had not started raining, so we decided to walk back to the cabin ahead of the storm.


Outside it was so windy that fir trees were bent over sideways and pine cones had turned into horizontally flying missives.


We ran.


A few sprinkles came down and then a CLAP of thunder exploded just as lightning hit, and our entire universe turned opaque white.  I remember seeing my shoe reach the steps…and then it disappeared.


Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird, Grand Tetons NP

We had been caught in a lightning strike.


How strange it was to be on earth with eyes wide open, and yet not seeing anything.  White out.


Fortunately it didn’t hit us directly.  We looked around in disbelief; no one had been injured.  No fires either.


It rained for about ten minutes and then the storm vanished, as quickly as it had arrived.


Whenever I am in the presence of a foreign mountain range, it is fascinating to see the weather system that each individual range produces.  That day the Grand Tetons showed their grandeur.


Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

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Snake River and Tetons. Photo by Ansel Adams. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane, International Crane Foundation

Whooping Crane, International Crane Foundation

One of North America’s rarest birds, the whooping crane was brought back from the brink of extinction.


Close to five feet tall (1.5 m) with a wingspan of 7.5 feet (2.3 m), they are the tallest flying bird in North America. Named for their whooping call, they nest on marshy lakes and ponds.


The whooping cranes are omnivorous; they eat insects, shrimp, crabs, clams, frogs, as well as acorns, roots, and berries.  In the wild they can live 22-24 years.


More whooping crane info here.


Grus americana were once fairly widespread on the prairies of North America, but by 1941 only 21 wild and two captives remained on earth.


Whooping Crane, ICF

Whooping Crane, ICF

We were thrilled to see a (captive) pair at the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin.


Their conservation status is Endangered.  According to the Crane Foundation, there are 599 (captive and wild) whooping cranes left on earth.


The population declined primarily due to loss of habitat, but continued threats from illegal hunting, predators, and other disturbances remain today.


Some crane flocks migrate over 2,400 miles across the entire U.S., creating many possibilities for their demise.  Usually if a threatened animal is enclosed, they can be better protected.



Courtesy International Crane Foundation

Conservation efforts have been enormous, including costume-rearing where scientists dress up in bird-like costumes to rear chicks.


Cross-fostering with sandhill cranes; a new flyway location; and even using ultralight aircraft to teach migration have been tried.  There are more projects; info here.


Ultralight aircraft and whooping cranes on first successful migration in 2009, by Operation Migration. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

One large population currently breeds in a remote forest in Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada.


They winter at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas.   (See map below.)  Every spring they migrate north on their long and vulnerable journey.


Exhibit at International Crane Foundation

Exhibit at International Crane Foundation

One of the best places to view them in the wild is at their wintering grounds in Aransas.  More about Aransas NWR here.


Two fellow bloggers have posted on the whooping cranes and Aransas:

Wild whooping crane photos by Ingrid at

Recent visit to Aransas by Birder’s Journey


Whooping Cranes, Horicon NWR, Wisc.

Whooping Cranes, Horicon NWR, Wisc.

We spotted a pair at the Horicon Marsh NWR in Wisconsin.  This was a great joy, because I didn’t think I would ever see a wild one in my lifetime.


Fortunately this large bird continues its breeding and migrating, and populations are rising rather than declining.


Oh, how wonderful it would be if the population could continue to grow.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

Courtesy International Crane Foundation


South America’s Manu Park

White caiman, Manu Nat'l. Park, Peru

White caiman, Manu Nat’l. Park, Peru

As we are experiencing the Rio Summer Olympics, a deeper look into South America and one of the world’s most successful parks is appropriate.


Manu National Park in southern Peru is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve.  It is on the Madre de Dios River, a tributary of the Amazon, and protects over 4.5 million acres (2 mil. ha) of earth in a variety of habitats.  See map below.


Boarding the boats, Manu

Boarding the boats, Manu

It has been protected over the centuries largely due to its inaccessibility.


After several days on bus traversing the Andes Mountains, we arrived at the river and spent two additional days (via motorized canoe) to reach our Manu destination.


Our tent

Our tent

Once there, we spent our days in rustic conditions without electricity, running water, roads, or towns.  We slept under mosquito nets in platformed tents.


As it is the Amazon Rainforest, it rained every day; it was wet, humid, hot, and moldy.


Manu,-tapir-areaComfort on wildlife adventures, however, is not the focus.  It is the wildlife we honor, and the isolation we savor; making this one of the most fantastic experiences ever.


In Manu there are 15,000 species of plants, including 250 varieties of trees in a single hectare.  The extensive variety of fauna is unparalleled.


Cock-of-the-Rock (photo: B. Page)

Cock-of-the-Rock (photo: B. Page)

It boasts of 1,000 species of birds (more than the U.S. and Canada birds combined) or 10% of the world’s birds.


Mammals, of which there are a whopping 222 species, include:  monkeys, peccaries, armadillos, jaguar, puma, anteaters, tapir, giant otters, sloths.  Nearly 100 different species of reptiles, over 1,300 species of butterflies, and the list goes on.


Red howler monkeys, Manu

Red howler monkeys, Manu

More info here.


You can read previous posts about a few of our Manu adventures here:

The Amazon River

Exquisite Bird Sighting

The Real Macaw


Wolf spider, Manu (photo B. Page)

Wolf spider, Manu (photo B. Page)

The success is that there are still places left on earth here that are not completely altered by humans.


Wildlife have space and habitat, native tribal communities live true to their culture, and the diversity and abundance of flora and fauna contribute to a balanced global climate.




South America, and the world, has a lot to be proud of in Manu.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted


Manu Nat’l. Park. Courtesy


Animated Animals

Friday Fun today.  Over the years there have been many cartoon characters modeled after animals.  Their anthropomorphic qualities have introduced wildlife to children, adults, and everyone in between.


With stories and voices, the animals come to life–thanks to the animators and voice actors.  Of course a real roadrunner doesn’t say “beep-beep” and a real rabbit is not nearly as cheeky as Bugs Bunny.


But sometimes fiction is just what we need.


Here are a few of the favorites in both versions:  the animated and the real life.  The characters for Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, and Porky Pig were less specific in species, so I took liberties.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander


Wile E Coyote.png

Wile E. Coyote created by Chuck Jones. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Coyote, California

Coyote, California. Canis latrans ochropus







Roadrunner looney tunes.png

The Road Runner created by Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese. Courtesy Wikipedia

Roadrunner, California

Roadrunner, California. Genus Geococcyx







Woody Woodpecker created by Hardaway, Blanc, Webb. Courtesy Wikia


Pileated Woodpecker, California

Pileated Woodpecker, California. Dryocopus pileatus








Daffy Duck.svg

Daffy Duck created by Tex Avery. Courtesy Wikipedia


Wood Duck, male, Calif.

Wood Duck, male, Calif. Aix spansa







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Bugs Bunny created by Hardaway, Dalton, Avery. Courtesy Wikipedia

Jackrabbit, Nevada. Genus Lepus

Jackrabbit, Nevada. Genus Lepus









from The Bugs Bunny Show (1960-2000). Courtesy Wikipedia


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Porky Pig created by Bob Clampett. Courtesy Wikia

Warthog, Zambia. Phacochoerus africanus

Warthog, Zambia. Phacochoerus africanus








Light on Feathers

Black-billed Magpie, Montana

Black-billed Magpie, Montana. Visually looks likes half black and half blue.

Demonstrating the curious effect of light on feathers are these three photos of the black-billed magpie.


We came across magpies on a Montana back road, shown in the first two photos.  Athena captured the iridescent feathers on the wings and tail.


But often, as seen in the third photo taken by a different photographer, the bird shows no blue at all.  They look black and white.


Black-billed Magpie, Montana

Black-billed Magpie, Montana. Still some blue just above the tail, but mostly black.

Birds get their color in many different ways.


Some birds, like the flamingo, get their color from the food they eat.  They eat algae with beta-carotene and as a result, are a pink bird.  This kind of pigment coloring is common in many birds.


Black-billed Magpie (Idaho) in different light. Photo by Stephen S. Skrzydlo. Courtesy Wikipedia.

In other birds, however, the color comes from the structure of the feather and the surrounding light.  This is how the blue color is expressed in blue birds.


Light is refracted in the feather by a microscopic structure called a barbule or barb.   There are tiny air pockets in the barbules that capture and scatter incoming light.


In both blue- and iridescent-feathered birds, light is the determining factor for the color we see.  Bird photographers and birders are acutely aware of this distinction.


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Feather diagram courtesy


Anna's Hummingbird, Northern California

Anna’s Hummingbird, California. Throat gorget looks black.



Anna's hummingbird California. Same species, different light.

Anna’s hummingbird California. Same species, different light.

Likewise, sometimes we look at a hummingbird and the throat (gorget) looks black.  Then the bird turns slightly and you get a riot of color.


It is quite complicated, with varying wavelength refractions, differing species, etc.


You can read more about feathers here and here.  Hummingbird iridescence here.


Structural coloration is an often-studied concept  in nature for application to artificial or manufactured colors.  More here.


With some birds, everything in your perspective literally changes when more light is shed on the situation.  Another cool thing about birds.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

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Drinking Up Zambia

Victoria Falls, Africa

Victoria Falls, Africa

For a land-locked country, Zambia has a lot of water.


Not only do the famous Victoria Falls border this African country, but there are many rivers and lakes here as well.


Hippo Pool at night, Zambia

Hippo Pool at night, Zambia

With three major rivers, five lakes, 17 waterfalls and numerous wetlands, Zambia has so much water power that it sources the Kariba Dam.   (See map below).


Waterways of Zambia were also the attraction for David Livingstone in the mid-1800s, in his driving efforts to share the teachings of Christianity and abolish the African slave trade.


Fishing with Hippos, Luangwa River, Zambia

Fishing with Hippos, Luangwa River, Zambia

He determined that by mapping the Central African watershed, he would open the interior of Africa to “Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization.”


Livingstone was the first westerner to see the great falls of Mosi-oa-Tunya (“the smoke that thunders).  Eventually he would identify not only Victoria Falls but also many lakes and rivers, especially the Zambezi River, providing pioneering details and enabling large regions to be mapped.


Zebra in Zambia

Zebra in Zambia

For more information about Zambia click here.


Zambia has its problems from corruption to poverty, shrinking forests, poaching, and severe loss of habitat.  This has made it difficult for wildlife to exist outside the parks.


Zambia river tributary

Zambia river tributary

But within the roughly 20 national parks of Zambia water is flowing and wildlife flock to it.  More about Zambia wildlife here.


Waiting for the ferry at the Zambezi River, Zambia

Waiting for the Kazungula Ferry at the Zambezi River, Zambia

I saw more hippos here than I ever thought possible.  And water, a sought-after resource all across Africa, was refreshingly abundant.


It was on the banks of the Luangwa River where we had our midnight encounter with a mother elephant and her baby.  Read more here.


Water is a necessary resource for all of us, and fortunately Zambia is covered with it.


Zambia in dark green. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander



Jet at the Zambezi River

Jet at the Zambezi River