Long-tailed Birds

Resplendent Quetzal (male), Costa Rica

 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher (male), Belize

Every once in a while I come across a bird with a spectacularly long tail. It happened last month with this Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Belize. When the bird flies, his long tail ripples gracefully in the wind.

 

One day long ago, while I was still in birding classes, I was standing in my mother’s backyard, a suburb near Dallas not far from fields. I looked up and saw a beautiful bird on the telephone lines with the longest tail I had ever seen in my life. Later I was to learn it was the scissor-tailed flycatcher, not uncommon in Texas.

 

And since then, I have had the pleasure of collecting many beautiful images of birds with lengthy tails.

 

We were flying down a Mexican highway in a cab one day, when we spotted this jay on the lines. Screeched to a halt.

 

Black-throated Magpie Jay (male), Mexico

 

In some long-tailed bird species, only the male has the long tail; in other species, like motmots, both genders have the long tail.

 

There are numerous evolution theories as to why a species has a long tail. Most theories posit that the male’s long tail is a signal to the female of good breeding foundation.

 

Some species have cord-like streamers, whereas others, like my favorite the resplendent quetzal, have more of a double ribbon for a tail.

 

Motmots, a colorful Neotropic bird, have long tails shaped like racquets.

 

Turquoise-browed Motmot, Costa Rica

 

This hummingbird has a racquet-tail too.

Booted Racket-tail Hummingbird (male), Peru

 

One of the most striking birds on the planet, the resplendent quetzal male has a long tail that sparkles in the sunlight. For an hour we watched this male in a Costa Rican mountain rainforest eating avocadoes. Then when he was satiated, he flew on.

 

We instinctively ran after him, enchanted by the magic, the beauty.

 

Undulating behind this showy bird, the iridescent tail shimmered and flowed in the most natural ribbon-like spectacle. Eventually the bird disappeared into the forest.

 

Resplendent Quetzal (male), Costa Rica

 

In the red-billed tropicbird, the male’s tail streamer is slightly longer than the female’s, about 4.7 inches (12 cm).

 

We once went to a breeding colony of tropicbirds on the island of Little Tobago in the West Indies. The tropicbirds were competing with frigatebirds over food, and the guide told us that sometimes a frigatebird would pluck at a tropicbird’s long streamers, try to pull it out.

 

Red-billed Tropicbird, Little Tobago Island, West Indies

 

Birds that wear party streamers for tails:  they make you want to sing and dance and go a little wild.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Indian Peacock in Texas

 

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Tapir Time

Baird’s Tapir, female adult, Belize

Tapirs are large, four-legged mammals found primarily in the jungles of Central and South America. They are rare. How very exciting it was then, to have ten minutes in the wild with this magnificent animal.

 

Adding to the difficulty of finding them, they are nocturnal, and classified as Endangered or Vulnerable. Currently there are five tapir species in the world, with one small population in Southeast Asia and all the rest in the New World. The list of extinct tapir species is far longer than the extant list.

 

Tapir Wikipedia.  Pronounced TAY-peer. We observed the Baird’s Tapir species.

 

Athena and I were on a night drive, standing in the back of a pick-up truck in the jungles of Belize. We had two guides: one was driving, the other was spotting, i.e. shining a strong spotlight on the trees as we drove along.

 

Five minutes after we began, the driver stopped and turned off the truck. None of us spoke. With the aid of the spotlight, we could see branches moving a few feet ahead, and just then a long snout reached out of the thicket.

 

In spite of our excitement we stayed silent, inviting it to come out so we could see it better.

 

Then another snout, this one considerably smaller, peered out from behind the branches; and the mother and juvenile cautiously but steadily walked out of the forest. Their eight hooves clopped as they tentatively walked in front of our truck and crossed the narrow road.

 

Baird’s Tapir, juvenile and mother, Belize

 

As they crossed, the adult tapir wiggled her wet nose, sniffing our scent as she determined if she and her youngster were safe.

 

Apparently she knew we were there only to admire, for she led her youth forward and they casually continued to eat the leaves. Baby tapirs are striped and spotted; this juvenile, with no more baby skin, was estimated to be 1.5 years old.

 

Baird’s Tapirs, Belize, juvenile facing camera

 

The largest native herbivore in the New World tropics, tapirs are usually wary of humans, for they have been hunted close to extinction, and their forest habitat continues to disappear. But we were in a preserve where they are surrounded by forest and protected.

 

Here we were all safe in the dark rainforest, with moths and bats and low-hanging palm fronds casting eerie shadows. We were fellow mammals curiously looking at one another.

 

Their long proboscis noses wiggled and sniffed.  On both tapirs the elephantine snout sniffed the leaves and tore them from the branch, shoveling the greenery into the mouth.

 

Baird’s Tapir, adult female, Belize

 

As we continued to watch, I was frequently reminded of other mammals. The elephant came quickly to mind. Tapirs use their prehensile noses for grasping, just like the elephant with its trunk. Their gentle disposition also reminded me of elephants. The clopping sound of their ungulate hooves reminded me of horses.

 

When they walked very close to the back of our vehicle, I remember wondering if they could charge like their perissodactyl relative the rhinoceros.

 

An adult tapir weighs about 500 pounds (227 kg).

 

Baird’s Tapir, front hoof

Tapirs have a very thick skin which aids them when the wild cats pounce on them. Their tough skin can retract, rejecting the cat claws. And if a cat still insists on hanging on, the tapir will violently run through the jungle slamming the cat against a tree.

 

But that night there was no slamming or charging. Mosquitoes were biting, moths and bats were swooping, but the tapirs just meandered along…no hurries, no worries.

 

They walked a full circle around us, first crossing the road in front of the truck, eating leaves on our right, then crossing the road in back, and eating the leaves on our left. Soon after that, they vanished into the forest.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Baird’s Tapirs, eating

 

Thirsty Butterflies

Dark Kite-swallowtail Butterfly, Belize

We had been birding the Belizean tropical jungle for days, when a new phenomenon greeted us one dawn morning: clouds of butterflies congregating around the ground.

 

Up until then, we had been seeing that same species, the Dark Kite-swallowtail butterfly, flying around all week. One or two, here and there, on flowers–like usual.

 

But this day they were in clumps of 40 and 50, always on the earth.

 

Dark Kite-swallowtail Butterflies, Belize

 

Rainforest

There were hundreds, and as we headed down the road to our destination–to watch toucans feeding–we watched them flutter all around, quite magical.

 

They were all on the road and the dirt, and as our truck trundled by I was nervous for their safety. They could easily be run over.

 

I asked the guide, “Why are all the butterflies around this morning? And in such big groups?” It was 6 a.m., no one was especially gregarious yet.

 

He explained that due to the rain we’d had the night before, the ground was moist, and the butterflies were drinking the water.

 

Keel-billed Toucan, Belize’s national bird

 

Hours after we’d watched the toucans, we came upon the local village’s small airport hangar, and found a drainpipe surrounded by the swallowtail butterflies. It’s hard to make out, but that dark smudge in the bottom right of this photo, right of the drainpipe, is all butterflies…at least a hundred. They were having a drinking party.

Black Kite-swallowtail Butterflies at base of drainpipe between building and road, Belize

 

Every butterfly has a proboscis and a pair of antennae. The proboscis is a mouth part, used for sucking. It is a long tube (technically, two tubes) with muscles; part of the digestive system. We don’t always see a butterfly’s proboscis because it can be coiled-up, out of sight.

 

Their antennae, generally club-shaped, have a different function: as receptors, and for balancing.

Butterfly anatomy

from enchantedlearning.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

That day, each individual was using its proboscis to suck water from the ground.

 

The butterfly uses the proboscis not only for sucking water, but also for sucking nectar and sometimes, for extracting minerals. If you’ve ever witnessed a butterfly landing on a person’s skin, the insect is seeking the mineral salt in human sweat.

 

It was windy and the gusts were blowing their long-tailed wings, but each individual steadily continued to drink the rainwater, undeterred.

 

Everyday in the rainforest it was very hot and humid and we were always hot and thirsty…but who would’ve guessed that the butterflies were thirsty?

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Black Kite-swallowtail Butterflies, Belize

 

Spring Wildlife Rituals

Jackrabbit

Northern California is now about a month or two into spring. The hillsides are emerald, wildflowers abound. Almost every summer migrant bird species has arrived; and all the animals have begun their spring rituals.

Wild Douglas iris, California

Violet-green swallows, black-headed grosbeaks, and Pacific-slope flycatchers have arrived from Mexico and Central America. They will breed here, then leave in autumn, hopefully with a new brood.

 

Violet-green Swallow, male, California

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (male); a highly anticipated spring arrival

 

Pacific-slope flycatcher adult singing of life

Additional bird species have also arrived, in their usual order, some earlier in spring, some later. Flycatchers, tanagers, warblers, gnatcatchers, and more.

 

The violet-green swallows, oak titmice, and western bluebirds always vie for the nest boxes. Our human spring ritual is to clean out the boxes; their avian spring ritual is to squabble over them. It makes no difference how many boxes we offer, the territory battles somehow have to occur.

 

They cling to their real estate amidst a swirl of swooping competitors, and eventually it all gets settled out.

Violet-green swallow on nest box, California

 

Western Bluebird on nest box, California

 

A few of the reptiles are starting to show their faces. They come out of hibernation on warm days: look around, absorb the sun, do their dances, then return to their burrows when the evening starts it’s chill.

 

This week I saw about five western fence lizards

Western Fence Lizard, California

and at least ten skinks.

Skink, California

 

Twice we found snake tracks in powdery dirt, but no snake. It looked like a wooden pencil was dragged through the dirt. The snakes will linger longer when the earth has warmed up more, rattle at us if we unknowingly get too close.

 

This is a rattlesnake in our front yard from a previous summer; they keep our rodent population under control. That’s a big one.

Western Rattlesnake, sub-species Northern Pacific; Calif. Rattle (white) at far right end of tail, 6-8 rattles.

 

Then there are the frogs, Pacific chorus frogs. For the last three months they have been in full symphonic mode at night, singing at the neighbor’s pond, each male singing loudly–the louder the better–to attract a mate.

 

They require water for laying eggs, so the mating rituals begin at the pond’s edge, with the male filling up his throat with air, then croaking and crooning.

 

Starting in late January, through February and March, I sat in the dark living room with the window open, listening appreciatively, for as long as I could stand the frigidity. The sound came in thick waves, swelling, and swelling more.

 

Now there’s warm air coming through the night window, and the cacophony has dwindled, signaling that most mating has occurred.

 

Meanwhile, the female lays 400-750 eggs. They are jelly-like beads, in clumps that stick to the reeds and twigs. The frogs have to lay so many because it is tasty caviar to most other wildlife.

 

Soon the tadpoles will sprout little legs and gradually their entire bodies will transform from water-swimming pollywogs to land-hopping frogs.

Tadpole on a leaf…

Tadpole with frog legs

then frog.

Pacific Chorus Frog, California

The adult frog is very small, about two inches long (5 cm). They keep our spiders and insects in check.

 

Warm days, growing longer. New life abounds in many different forms…reminding us that miracles are everywhere.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) and Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly, Angel Island, CA

 

Earth Day Hero: Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson. Photo from Rachel Carson The Writer at Work by Paul Brooks.

 

Pair of Brown Pelicans, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, FL

Rachel Carson changed the world when her book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962. At the time of writing, agriculture was accelerating to new heights with the advancement of synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, and pesticides.

 

The pesticide DDT had been heralded during WWII for controlling malaria, typhus, body lice, and bubonic plague; Paul Herman Muller had been awarded a Nobel prize for it.

 

From the 1950s on, DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane) was used extensively–40,000 tons a year, worldwide. Especially effective in eliminating mosquitoes, it was liberally sprayed from airplanes and trucks, on crops and neighborhoods.

 

Insect-borne diseases, they said, would be a thing of the past.

Mosquito control, Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, 1945. The sign says “DDT, Powerful Insecticide, Harmless to Humans.” Bettmann/Corbis

 

As a child in the 1960s, I clearly remember the excitement of the “spray truck” when it regularly came down our street in Wisconsin every summer. We lived near a marsh and mosquitoes were rampant.

 

All the little kids, including me, would go running out of their homes chasing after the spray truck, as if it was an ice cream truck.

 

We would run with delight into the billowing clouds of DDT.

 

Image result for spray truck mosquitoes 1960s


DDT truck, 1960s, from pininterest.com

This is difficult to imagine now, all these decades later; but is a good indication of the level of ignorance then toward chemicals, pesticides, and insecticides.

Osprey, Ding Darling NWR, FL

While many scientists and industrial chemical companies were earnestly manufacturing dozens of new chemical cocktails, Rachel Carson, along with other scientists in the minority, began addressing the potential dangers of these unknown concoctions.

 

In the book she described how chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphorus insecticides, like DDT, altered cellular structure in living beings.

 

The powerful chemical industry spent a quarter million dollars to discredit her research and malign her character. Still, she continued to present her scientific findings and medical interviews, citing numerous cases of human illnesses and fatalities from DDT and its derivatives. Tumors in laboratory rats.

Double-crested Cormorant, Las Gallinas Ponds, CA

American Robin, CA

 

The publication of the book stirred the nation.

 

The title, Silent Spring, predicted the silencing of birds and wildlife under this insidious chemical barrage. Communities organized grassroots efforts demanding the discontinuance of the aerial spraying in their neighborhoods. Then-president John F. Kennedy responded to the book by launching federal and state investigations.

 

During this period, the bald eagle population, America’s symbol of strength and freedom, was rapidly declining. Other birds were also affected: pelicans, peregrine falcons, and more.

Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR, California

All the bird species shown in these photos had populations that were dwindling or troubled due to DDT and its derivatives. The residue was in the land and water, contaminating insects, fish, worms, prey. Calcium metabolism was interrupted by DDT, eggs were too thin to reproduce subsequent generations.

 

Rachel Carson’s prediction of a silent spring was manifesting.

American White Pelican flock cooperative feeding, Las Gallinas Ponds, CA

 

Peregrine Falcon, CA

 

Western Gull, Bodega Bay, CA

 

After a decade of much controversy, DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972. Many other countries, like Canada and across Europe, discontinued its use, too.

 

During the writing of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer; then it metastasized. She managed to complete and publish the book, and motivate the country and the world into grasping the dangers arising from improper pesticide use and the need for better pesticide controls.

 

She died of breast cancer a year after this photo was taken, at the age of 56.

Rachel Carson at a Senate subcommittee hearing on pesticides in 1963. Credit United Press International courtesy New York Times.

Rachel Carson at a Senate subcommittee hearing on pesticides in 1963. Credit. United Press International courtesy New York Times

 

The story of DDT does not end here. But for today, let’s give Rachel Carson a bow for all the people and animals who survive, thanks to her.

 

Another of the many Earth Day heroes we can salute for their attentiveness, tenacity, and soulful work in making the earth a safer, sweeter place.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Bird photos by Athena Alexander.

 

American White Pelican, Las Gallinas, CA

 

Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs

Old Faithful, Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park and the area around it, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, is a geothermal system like nowhere else in the world. Situated primarily in the state of Wyoming, this 2.2-million acre expanse is a roiling hotspot.

 

It has at least 10,000 geothermal features. Geysers are the most commonly known geothermal form, like Old Faithful, but there are several different kinds.

 

Travertine Terraces, Mammoth

On the northernmost  border of Yellowstone is Mammoth Hot Springs. Different from erupting geysers, Mammmoth stands out for its travertine terraces.

 

These terraces were formed from hot springs and carbonate deposits over thousands of years.

Terraces and steamy hot springs

 

Beneath the earth, thermal water from the hot springs travels via a fault line that runs through limestone. The water interacts with hot gases and forms a hot, acidic solution; the limestone dissolves into calcium carbonate.

 

Once this water reaches earth’s surface, carbon dioxide is released and the acidic solution forms a mineral called travertine, a chalky white substance.

 

Travertine Terrace

 

The terraces are ever-changing. Over two tons of the acidic solution are deposited here every day.

 

The different colors are a result of algae and bacteria.

 

There are boardwalk paths for visitors to observe the travertine terraces. Between the upper and lower terrace boardwalks are approximately 50 hot springs.

 

Live webcam: Travertine Terraces at Yellowstone

 

Mammoth Hot Springs

 

On the lower flats are the village, slightly left of center in the above photograph; a hotel and cabins, basic park services, Albright Visitor Center.

 

Located about a 1.5 hour’s drive north from the popular spots of the park, like Old Faithful, Mammoth is an isolated and lesser-known area of the park, close to the Montana border. Maps below.

 

Mound Terrace

 

In addition to the terraces, there are also a few formations, like Orange Spring Mound which occurred from a slow water flow and mineral deposits.

 

Orange Spring Mound

 

Inhabitants of the valley include elk, often seen grazing.

 

Elk herd

 

Fort Yellowstone is also here. It was once an Army fort created for establishing order in America’s first national park; the birthplace of the U.S. National Park Service.

 

Mammoth Village

 

In Yellowstone’s fiery and magma-driven corner of the world, Mammoth Hot Springs is a unique landscape well worth exploring.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

More info: Geothermal Areas of Yellowstone.

 

 

 

Map showing location of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone.

Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone. Courtesy yellowstonepark.com

 

The Glory of Wildflowers

Wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis) and oaks

We’re having a profusion of wildflowers in California. This year we  had a lot of rain along with cool days and nights–a good formula for wildflowers.

 

I found an enchanting hillside of native lupine on my walk this week.

 

This is the genus that is famously called bluebonnets in Texas. Lady Bird Johnson, the hero of wildflowers, brought nature-loving Americans to revere this wildflower.

Lupine (Lupinus albifrons) and oaks

 

Lupine (Lupinus albifrons)

I have seen several hillsides of it this week. They tend to thrive in degraded soils, like after a fire or on heavily grazed land.

 

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

 

In California our wildflowers were given the title of “Super Bloom” this year, beckoning hordes of people creating traffic jams, and the accidental crushing of flowers as folks positioned for selfies.

 

I avoid those scenes, and gravitate to the quiet spots; have found hundreds and hundreds of beautiful sprightly flowers this spring.

Shooting Stars, Dodecathion (2017)

 

Some wildflowers are native, and some are not. In California, two examples of native wildflowers are the lupine and poppies seen here.

 

Non-native wildflowers, like the wild mustard  in the first photo, spread uncontrollably, and can pose a problem because they squeeze out the natives.

 

But invasives can be attractive to some creatures.

American Goldfinch, Pt. Reyes, on wild radish

 

There’s something really special about finding native wild lilies. They are usually just a few sparse stems in the forest undergrowth.

 

Some years they don’t come up, or get munched on by wildlife. But other years they emerge from the earth in full bliss. They poke their little heads out after the rains stop, and day after day they grow, first their stems and leaves, then the flower heads. Then one day they’ve completely arrived.

 

Redwood lily, Lilium rubescens

 

Mission Bells

 

When I come across a wild lily, I am uplifted all day. I plan when I can return to see it again, before its short life is over.

 

This year is the second spring after northern California’s destructive wildfires. Many of the former spring lilies and other species have vanished. The lily photos above are from earlier years.

 

But even after massive wildfires, the earth keeps growing. Instead of the lilies this year, we have an abundance of Indian Warriors. They are more prolific than ever before. Here’s a close-up of this ruby delight, but with a warning, a glimpse of the big picture.

 

Indian Warrior (Pedicularis densiflora)

 

Indian Warrior (Pedicularis densiflora)

 

In less damaged areas, natives like buttercups grace the oak hillsides.

Buttercups (Ranunculus californicus) and oaks

 

Wild Douglas iris look like the iris you find in a floral shop. They are short-stemmed, however, and compete with the grass.

Iris (Iris douglasiana) in grass

 

Lots of rain means lots of tall grass, so the secret to finding wildflowers is getting to them before the grass gets too long. Once the grass overshadows the flowers it blocks out the sun, and the wildflowers fade away. This is the only predictable aspect of wildflowers.

 

I enjoyed a hike at Angel Island this past weekend, where patches of blue forget-me-nots reminded me not to forget them.

Blue Forget-me-nots (Myosotis) with Oxalis (yellow) and Miner’s Lettuce (white)

 

Our native state flower, the California poppy, still remains one of my favorite wildflowers. I find their brightness infectious, cheerful, and unlike many spring wildflowers, the poppies stick around for months.

 

California poppies, Eschscholzia californica (2015)

Eschscholzia californica have proliferated so much this spring that it can be seen from space!

 

This photo was taken in southern California via satellite.

DigitalGlobe satellites were able to capture this image of a superbloom in California's Walker Canyon on March 19, 2019.

DigitalGlobe satellites captured this image of a super bloom in California’s Walker Canyon on March 19, 2019. Courtesy space.com.

 

Sweet wildflowers bring a touch of natural beauty and a gentle reminder to pause and appreciate the wonder.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Elegant Clarkia, Clarkia unguiculata