Sacramento Natl. Wildlife Refuge 2022

Our day last week at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge was another bonanza of wildlife, a particularly exciting adventure in the middle of winter.

The enormous number of birds is what keeps things so interesting. It is a 10,819-acre (43.78 sq. km.) wetland expanse; a wintering home to hundreds of thousands of migrating geese, ducks and other waterfowl.

The Northern California migration typically lasts from November through January, depending on the weather.

The most predominate goose species every year is the Snow Goose. They come from Wrangell Island in Siberia (U.S.S.R.) and spend the winter here in our milder climate.

This year there were also several hundred Ross’s geese.

And thousands of White-fronted Geese.

What we saw were waves and waves of white geese flying in all different directions.

What we heard was the most magnificent cacophony of honking and squawking.

This is a good representational recording: Click here for Snow Geese flock cacophony.

There are also many duck species who winter in the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.

Last week the major duck species was the Northern Shovelers. Last month, according to the Survey Summary, there were a lot of pintail ducks. It varies depending on the month and weather.

Northern Shovelers (Spatula clypeata) have similar coloring to mallards, but their namesake shovel-shaped bills easily distinguish them. They can often be seen swinging their spatulate bills from side to side in the water as they strain aquatic vegetation, plankton, and tiny invertebrates.

We often saw the Shovelers like this…

…but just as often like this.

The geese and ducks are only part of the refuge extravaganza, for there are also songbirds, shorebirds, waders, gulls, grebes, woodpeckers, raptors and other birds.

Here a white-faced ibis joined the northern shovelers. Tall bird in center with the long bill.

We spotted this adult and immature pair of bald eagles early on our auto tour (photo below). From this distance it looks like two dots in the tallest tree.

We knew we would get a better look at them as we progressed down the road.

At times we heard them calling out–a screeching sound.

And eventually we came closer.

The adult was easier to spot due to the characteristic white head.

It takes 4-5 years for a bald eagle to reach maturity, acquire the white head and tail. Prior to that there are many stages of maturation.

The immature bald eagle (below) still had a gray bill and a dark head, so is probably around 2-3 years old.

The young eagle’s flying was accomplished, and we enjoyed watching him/her swoop over the ducks, practicing bravado. The ducks scattered in a flutter of wingbeats when the young eagle came near.

We spotted western meadowlarks numerous times that day. They brighten up the brown landscape with their vivacious yellow markings, and even more bright is their song. A magical fluty series of notes.

We have always seen an interesting array of mammals here too. This year we saw nearly a dozen black-tailed jackrabbits, a striped skunk and a ground squirrel.

Two years ago we came upon a trio of river otters in one of the water-filled ditches. They were having a grand time catching fish, and the feeding frenzy lasted at least a half-hour.

Reptiles also joined last week’s fracas. First there were two western pond turtles on a log. Soon a third and then a fourth climbed onto the same log.

Throughout the whole turtle encounter, I noticed there was one who kept opening its mouth wide. You can see it in this photo, third from the left.

Come to think of it, it seems like all these wildly beautiful creatures seemed to have their mouths open that day. The geese were honking, mallards laughing uproariously, the bald eagles were screeching and the meadowlarks were warbling.

Made me want to sing too.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Snipe

I had the fortune of seeing a family of snipe this week. This is a bird that few people notice or know of, and some people think is imaginary.

Wilson’s Snipe, Gallinago delicata, is in the shorebird family: Scolopacidae. It is the most common snipe in North America.

They are short, pudgy birds about the size of an American Robin; usually found in marshes, with sandy coloring and markings that perfectly camouflage them.

This is the family of four we spotted while birding at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge this week.

With the tall grass and their camouflage, you can see how tricky they are to spot. They are standing (above photo) in the tall grass that spans the photo’s upper center. In the foreground on a log is a pair of resting green-winged teals.

We were on our annual visit to see the waterfowl winter migration. A spectacle that always delights.

While there, we spotted the snipes. In addition to their camouflaging, they have elusive behavior.

In over 30 years of birding, I have seen the snipe only about a half-dozen times. Spotting four at once was an unprecedented bonanza.

We were on the Refuge’s auto tour at one of the few places where we were allowed to get out of our car. We were having lunch: enjoying a bite, then scanning with the binoculars, listening to the cacophony of migrating geese and ducks, taking another bite, then looking through the spotting scope. To birders like Athena and me, this is heaven.

In our initial 360-degree binocular scan of the area, we spotted the snipes and enjoyed close to an hour there.

They never changed positions in that hour, except an occasional head lift.

This is the scene without extra lenses.

They use their long bill to probe into the mud for food. Their diet consists of insect larvae and insects like dragonflies, beetles and moths; and invertebrates like snails and worms.

Two special features of that marvelous bill: it is flexible and thereby good for probing; and the snipe can swallow small prey without pulling their bill from the mud.

John James Audubon wrote an extensive observation about the snipe–it’s behavior, migration, flight, breeding, and more.

Link: Audubon’s Birds of America, American Snipe

They do not breed in Northern California, and I have never seen the mating displays. But I have read they have a spectacular flight dance.

Here is Audubon’s description of the flight dance of a snipe pair:

It often happens that before these birds depart in spring, many are already mated. The birds are then met with in meadows or on low grounds, and, by being on the spot before sunrise, you may see both mount high in the air in a spiral manner, now with continuous beats of the wings, now in short sailings, until more than a hundred yards high, when they whirl round each other with extreme velocity, and dance as it were to their own music; for at this juncture, and during the space of five or six minutes, you hear rolling notes mingling together, each more or less distinct….”

Audubon’s snipe drawing, Plate 243, is below. It was completed in 1835. This is an online partial drawing.

“American Snipe” by John J. Audubon, Plate 243. Courtesy audubon.org

In Audubon’s time (1785-1851), the bird was called the American Snipe. At that time, Alexander Wilson, a Scottish-American ornithologist and illustrator, was the first to prove the snipe here in America was different than the Common Snipe of Europe. So it was dubbed the American Snipe.

Over the years it would be named the Common Snipe, and then more recently it was further classified into two bird species, the most common American Snipe being named Wilson’s Snipe.

Why is it an imaginary bird to some people?

Because there is an age-old trick dating back to the mid-1800s called the Snipe hunt. As a rite-of-passage trick, elders tell a young person how to hunt for snipe (or some other non-existing creature), and then leave them alone in the woods with an empty bag and instructions for catching it. It’s a fool’s errand that tricks young ones into goofy behavior alone in the woods while everyone else runs away. Many youngsters, after the gig is up, think there is no such thing as a snipe.

As we sat eating lunch, basking in the sunshine and the thrill of being near four snipes, a few people walked by. We invited them to take a look in the scope at the snipe.

Their enthusiastic reactions and comments indicated they knew of the snipe but had rarely seen one. All were in awe.

This is a photo taken through the spotting scope.

We spotted nearly 40 different bird species that day, and thousands and thousands of migrating waterfowl visiting Northern California from as far north as Russia’s East Siberian Sea and North America’s Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. An incredible migration that I will tell you more about soon.

Fortunately for us, snipes are not imaginary. They are old and ancient friends of Homo sapiens. The name may change occasionally, but the bird has been occupying marsh shorelines for well over 187 years.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Range Map for Wilson's Snipe
Range map Gallinago delicata. Ora=Breeding; Yel=Migration; Pur=Year-round; Blue=Nonbreeding. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org.

Waters in the Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta is an inland delta in southern Africa, with waters formed by seasonal flooding. When the water is here, wildlife abound.

More info: Okavango Delta Wikipedia.

The Delta is flat and vast, covering 5,800 square miles (15,000 sq. km.); on the edge of the Kalahari Desert.

We visited this UNESCO World Heritage Site years back in August, when the Okavango River floods the Delta and wildlife congregate.

Large African antelope called waterbuck are often found around water because they cannot tolerate dehydration.

Little Bee-eaters perch as they wait for bees. If you watch bee-eaters long enough, you have the pleasure of watching one sally out in a flash, grab a bee, whack it against a tree, and come back to the perch to consume it.

Hippopotamuses are semiaquatic mammals; they spend their days in lakes and rivers, staying cool in water or mud. At night they graze on grasses.

This is a rufous-bellied heron we watched wrestling with a carp. He swallowed it whole.

Other bird species we commonly found foraging in the Okavango Delta waters were jacana and the fish eagle.

Jacanas have feet designed to evenly distribute the weight of the bird so they can walk atop lily pads. But in many parts of the Delta their long legs take them through shallower waters.

The African Fish Eagle, a raptor, was fierce and vigilant and commonly found in many watery parts.

Other raptors were the African Barred Owl and Black-shouldered Kite. They, too, found their perches and stealthily waited.

Wattled cranes, the largest cranes in Africa and globally threatened, forage on aquatic tubers and rhizomes of submerged sedges and water lilies. It was thrilling to find this trio, for this crane species is rare to find.

The hamerkop is one of my favorite birds, named for the hammer shape of its head. We didn’t see them too often but when we did, we watched intently.

Blacksmith Plovers in their bold patterning were often seen in the waterways.

We passed this hippo pond at sunset and watched their antics until the day’s light had receded.

There are over 5,000 species of wild mammals and over 10,000 species of birds on this planet. I am glad I could share a few of them from the Okavango Delta with you.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Our Winter Thrushes

We are fortunate in Northern California to have four species of thrushes join us for the winter months. Here’s a brief look at these beautiful birds.

Although Northern California is not warm in the winter, it is temperate enough that some bird species migrate here. We have driving rain and icy nights, but the sun comes out often and when it does, the birds leave their roosts in search of food.

For the thrushes, berries are a big draw.

Our four thrush species are “true thrushes,” all from the family Turidae: American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, and Western Bluebird.

Many years, especially in the last decade, if we are in a drought and haven’t had enough autumn rain, the berries don’t form. They start to grow, but without rain the berries shrivel up and drop to the ground.

But this past autumn we had plenty of rain, and consequently this winter there are berries everywhere. And thrushes everywhere.

Red berries on toyon, pyracantha, and cotoneaster shrubs; orange berries on the madrone trees.

American Robins, Turdus migratorius, are here year-round. In warm months we see them in pairs or small groups. In winter we have our local residents plus the migrants from Canada and Alaska, resulting in gloriously huge flocks.

Sometimes there will be 10 or 20 of them, rustling in the trees and bushes, plucking berries and chuckling as they engage in their lunch party. They are a big bird with whirring wingbeats, easy to hear and see.

Other times they can be flying high overhead in a flock of 60-100, often crossing the sky at the end of the day getting in one last meal before bedtime. The sky is absolutely filled with them. It’s one of my favorite winter sights, and I stop in my tracks when I hear them overhead…gaze up.

The hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus) and varied thrushes (Ixoreus naevius) are migrants, spend the winter here but only if there are berries. There are many years when they arrive in autumn, having flown long distances from Canada and northern states. If they discover only shriveled berries, they leave within a day and don’t return until next season.

With the gift of rain this year, both the hermit and varied thrushes have spent the winter.

Varied thrushes are west coast birds. They spend the winter here on the coast from Northern California all the way up to northern British Columbia.

On Christmas Day in 2015 we were in a Northern California giant redwood forest when we spotted this female popping around in the undergrowth.

In the eastern parts of the country, bird aficionados associate the hermit thrushes with their melodious flute-like song. The song, however, is part of their breeding ceremonials, and has nothing to do with winter foraging.

The call of the hermit here in winter is simply “chup-chup.” The varied thrush sound is a unique two-toned call that cuts through the forest on a rainy winter day.

Hermit Thrush sound, click here.

Varied Thrush sound, click here.

The bluebirds. Many people don’t realize bluebirds are thrushes, in the Turidae family.

Sialia mexicana, western bluebirds, live here year-round. This photo was taken on a March afternoon.

In spring they breed and nest, but in the winter they are searching for insects and berries.

This past summer I wrote a post about a pair of bluebirds who were nesting in the carcass of a burned tree. Some readers may remember this. (New Life in a Dead Tree.)

The brood was successful and when the chicks were big enough, the family of four left the nest and went out into the world.

Imagine what a thrill it was this past week when we returned to that meadow, on a short walk between rains, and saw the family. They perched very near to their home spot, the dead tree, chirped a cheerful hello to us, and then off they went in search of a meal.

There is something very special about the winter birds. When the flowers are gone and landscapes are stark and temperatures make you shiver, it is heartwarming to have a little aviary friend by your side.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Looking Ahead

From the galaxies above…

to the sea floor below…

and everything in between.

Let us find the tools to see past the noise of the day,

and recognize the heroes and miracles

that surround us every day.

Happy New Year, dear Readers.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

A Year of Abbotts Lagoon

As we reach the final weeks of 2021, here is a four-season review of a coastal lagoon in one of my favorite parks, Point Reyes, in Northern California.

There are 70,000 acres (300 sq. km.) of protected land on the Point Reyes Peninsula. Abbotts Lagoon is just one small section, located on the northwestern coast of the peninsula.

More info: Point Reyes Wikipedia and Abbotts Lagoon Wikipedia.

This year, like many people, we did less out-of-state traveling and stayed closer to home. We enjoyed day trips to Abbotts Lagoon almost every month.

It was enlightening to watch the flora and fauna shift as the seasons changed and gave us an intimacy with the lagoon area as never before.

The brisk months of early spring–February, March and April–brought displaying birds and a profusion of wildflowers.

An easy trail takes the hiker through northern coastal scrub, like this yellow bush lupine, where ground birds flourish. In spring and summer this bush is vibrant with blooms.

The gravel trail leads hikers between rolling fields and the lagoon, until eventually we reach sand dunes and the ocean. The seaside offers bracing coastal winds, frequent fog, and briny sea air. We often escaped inland heat waves here this past summer with the cool marine layer.

We discovered a pocket of land further down the road that almost always had mammals, and in May had the thrill of seeing this new fawn and mother.

By summertime the grass had turned brown, our usual summer look in Northern California. The coastal fog, however, provided moisture for native wildflowers. Hummingbirds could often be seen extracting nectar from this Coastal Hedge-Nettle.

Brush rabbits greeted us on every visit this year. One June day we observed this relaxed brush rabbit stretched out on the trail. At first we thought the rabbit might be injured, but it quickly dashed away as we approached.

Summer also brought the new generation of birds.

A white-crowned sparrow adult discussed the ways of life with his progeny.

Nearly a dozen immature quail chicks were a pleasant surprise; we watched this covey grow up. They were always skittish, with good reason.

Every Abbotts Lagoon visit this year (ten) we saw coyote. They had lustrous coats and full bellies from plenty of prey.

Dragonflies, butterflies, birds and bees punctuated all our summer visits.

A few miles north up the road is a tule elk preserve. By mid-August the tule elk males were bugling their dominance.

And as summer turned to fall, the new young coyotes were out on their own.

Late autumn rains returned the hillsides to verdant splendor, and ground-dwelling gophers and voles multiplied. This attracted more predators and raptors.

Winter birds greeted us, like this Say’s phoebe who is never here in spring or summer.

This molting elk’s coat is not at its finest in the winter, and he only had one antler, having shed the other one already.

There’s something sacred about watching the seasons change–the wildlife, the earth beneath our feet, the light, and temperatures.

Very soon the early spring will be upon us, and a new year of cycles will begin again.

I can hardly wait to get back to Abbotts Lagoon to see who will greet us.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Taking a short holiday break, dear friends, see you in January.

Courtesy Wikipedia.

Wild Jekyll Island

It was a fun day romping on this barrier island–hiking through native forests, observing wildlife, and delighting in shoreline discoveries.

The State of Georgia has 14 barrier islands lining the Atlantic coast. They are owned and managed by different entities; vary in size and accessibility. A map at the end outlines all the islands.

Barrier islands are coastal landforms shaped by tides, waves, wind, sand and other elements. They protect the coastline by forming a barrier, thereby blocking ocean waves and wind from directly hitting the mainland.

Salt marshes and maritime forests are important natural features of the barrier islands.

Like all the Georgia barrier islands, Jekyll Island has a rich history of human settlement going back hundreds of years.

But the beauty of Jekyll Island today lies in its ownership and laws. The State of Georgia owns this island, and state laws restrict development to only 35%.

This allows 65% of the island for natural habitat. Stewards of the land have done a great job of protecting the wilderness from human development.

Roughly seven miles long (11 km) and two miles wide (3 km), it is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the eastern side, and a tidal creek and salt marsh on the western side. It is 5,700 acres (2,307 ha). Map below.

I was impressed with the sand dunes and native sea grass on Jekyll’s oceanside beaches. Often American beaches have been completely cleared of native habitat, succumbing to human establishments like high rises and amusement parks. There are about nine hotels and a few restaurants, but the natural landscape prevails.

The beaches have been preserved with native flora, providing habitat and protected nesting for endangered sea turtles and migrating shorebirds.

We spent a few hours at Driftwood Beach on the north end. It is adjacent to a protected marsh where we saw many thriving waders, songbirds and shorebirds.

The island has many miles of maritime forests, as well. Maritime live oak forests are the dominant woods in Georgia’s southern barrier islands. In addition to the live oaks, so beautifully draped with Spanish moss, there is a variety of hardwood and pine trees.

The understory is alive with unique lichen, ferns, wild blueberries, and the ubiquitous saw palmettos.

We explored Tupelo Trail and Horton Pond. Even in October it was very hot and humid, but still it was an easy hike under a towering canopy complete with mosquitoes, shimmering spider webs and many species of foraging birds.

Signs warned of alligators, but our reptilian experiences were highlighted that day with numerous lizards and skinks, not alligators.

Horton Pond–named after Major William Horton, a land owner here in the 1740s–is a testament to the island’s ongoing conservation efforts. With fund-raising donations and the Jekyll Island Authority, the pond was updated in 2014.

It has a handsome observation deck, providing great views of the entire pond, while protecting the wild denizens.

We saw woodpeckers, songbirds, anhingas, and herons in the pond’s surrounding trees, and dozens of native softshell turtles swimming in the naturally tanic waters.

This softshell turtle is taking advantage of the floating raft anchored in the pond.

We had a great time on the north tip of the island, too. Clam Creek Road offers picnicking and wildlife viewing and an abundant plethora of tidal wildlife. I could easily and joyously have spent the entire day here.

The parking lot at Clam Creek was mellow and not teeming with cars and people, affording us the opportunity to enjoy this boat-tailed grackle bathing (and singing) in a puddle.

There is an extensive fishing pier, here, too. Built in 1969, it is a large T-shaped concrete structure that juts 360 feet (110 m) into the waters of St. Simons Sound. I’ve read there’s good fishing: red drum, spotted seatrout, Spanish mackerel, flounder, shark, and more, as well as shrimp and blue crabs.

In the photo below you can see what the pier looks like at most moments. It was low tide, and seemingly quiet and low-key, but there was a lot going on under the surface.

We were having a great time spotting shorebirds and hermit crabs, and all the wildlife who live in this plentiful world.

And then an incredible event happened.

A super giant cargo ship quietly passed by.

The Bravery Ace is 623 feet (190 m) long and 104 feet (32 m) wide. It’s called a Vehicles Carrier, transports thousands of cars and trucks.

You can see how big it is compared to the pier. It stirred the waters as it slowly labored by.

Although we stopped and stared at this magnificent vessel, the gulls didn’t stop picking the dead crabs apart and the shorebirds were undeterred in their feeding frenzy.

I hope to one day return to this Georgia gem. But in the meantime, I have sweet memories of a precious day on Jekyll Island.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Two Jekyll Island websites: Wikipedia and Jekyll Island.com

Sherpa Guides | Georgia | Coast | Jekyll Island
Courtesy Sherpa Guides.com

Georgia’s 14 Barrier Islands, Courtesy herbmiles.com

Black and White Friday

We are often attracted to the colorful wildlife on this planet, but for today, Black Friday, let’s take a look at our charismatic black-and-white animals.

There are all sorts of black-and-white animals, domestic-bred and wild, mammals and insects and everything in between. As always, I will focus exclusively on the wild animals here.

Zebras are probably the most fascinating, for their psychedelic coats.

The human fascination for zebras goes back centuries, and so do the scientific theories for their striped patterns.

In studies of the evolution of wild animals, defense is usually the key consideration. One defense theory for zebras is that in a group of them the striped patterning makes it difficult for a predator to focus on just one individual, a sort of camouflage.

Take one look at a zebra group (below), and you see firsthand how your eyes have a hard time focusing on any one individual.

Aptly, a collective noun for zebras is “dazzle.”

There are many more zebra-stripe theories, read more here: Zebra Wikipedia under Stripes

In contrast, defense for skunks, another black-and-white, is notoriously their smell. That strong obnoxious liquid they spray is a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals. Most predators rarely attack skunks due to the foul spray…except for one.

Great horned owls are the only predator to routinely attack skunks, due to the skunks’ poor sense of smell. They take down all six skunk species, even the heavier-bodied striped skunk species seen here.

Orca whales, badgers, pandas, and many more wild mammals have black-and-white coloring.

I recently saw a fellow walker with a Dalmatian dog, and that got me thinking about all the domestic-bred pied animals. The list keeps growing.

The black-and-white colobus monkeys, one of my favorite monkey species, are an Old World monkey. Sitting in a jeep one day on Mount Kenya, I heard a lot of rustling in the trees overhead. What a pleasant surprise to see these animated monkeys swinging from tree to tree, their fluffy white tails illuminated by the sun.

Our flightless birds the penguins–a familiar and loveable black-and-white presence on earth.

These Galapagos Penguins, below, are the only penguin species that live north of the equator. They typically live in caves and crevices for protection. Now listed as Endangered, this trio was under mangrove roots along the shoreline.

Of the flying birds, there are many black-and-whites.

Some are more familiar like woodpeckers, gulls, terns, and magpies.

This magpie photo reflects the color blue (on the rump), often not seen in a bird that is primarily black and white. Only if the sun is shining just right does an iridescent color appear. I’ve seen it at different times in magpies, the pied kingfisher, and bufflehead ducks, to name a few.

Here are two lesser-known black-and-white birds in the U.S.

These striking black-and-white birds reside on other continents.

Lastly, it is interesting to note that many mostly-white birds often have black wing tips. It is theorized that the white feathers without pigment are not as strong as feathers with pigment. Dark wings or wing tips are thought to provide extra protection for the feathers most vulnerable to abrasion during flight.

Migrating birds who fly long distances, like the American white pelican and snow geese below, may benefit from their black wing tips.

While it seems that few things in life are ever just black and white, today we found some wonderment in the wildlife that is.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Turtles and Tortoises

There are 360 species of turtles and tortoises on our planet, and they all fall under the same family Order: Testudines. These reptiles are unique creatures with many fascinating features.

We will look at a few of the major similarities and differences between turtles and tortoises. Nomenclature for these animals varies among countries; we won’t go into that here.

The fundamental difference between turtles and tortoises is where they live–land or water–and how their bodies have evolved to accommodate their environment.

Some of the ways turtles and tortoises are alike: both are cold-blooded (like all reptiles), lay their eggs on land, and have air-breathing lungs.

Just like their lizard cousins, turtles and tortoises need the sun to thermoregulate. Many of us have witnessed this sight before.

The carapaces (shells) of turtles and tortoises differ somewhat. But for both, the carapace is a permanent body part, it is never shed.

There are many of Earth’s creatures that have carapaces: armadillos, shell fish, crabs, most mollusks, beetles, and more.

But turtles and tortoises are the only reptiles with a shell.

Derived from bone, the carapace is permanently connected to the spine and ribs. During development, the ribs grow sideways and enter the animal’s skin, and then develop into broad, flat plates. They form their own personal armor.

More info: Turtle Wikipedia and Tortoise Wikipedia

Interesting Chart showing common species of turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.

And a few of the ways turtles and tortoises differ….

A turtle’s carapace is relatively flat and thin to help with diving and swimming. Small turtles have feet that are webbed or clawed to aid in swimming and climbing onto rocks.

Large turtles have flippers, as you can see (below).

This turtle, below, doesn’t have a full, hard shell (like most). It is classified as a softshell turtle because the carapace is not fully bone. In the center it has a layer of bone, while the edges are made of cartilage and are leathery. It allows them to move more flexibly on muddy lake bottoms, and more quickly on land.

Sea turtles are one of my favorite creatures on earth. There are seven species in the world. In the U.S. we have six species and all are listed as endangered or threatened. Much work has been done to protect our big sea turtles, but there is still a lot left to do to ensure their survival.

Just like the smaller turtles, sea turtles live mostly in the water, coming to shore to bask in the sunshine and/or lay eggs in the sand.

Under water the sea turtles glide with beauty, ease and speed. They are omnivores and spend their submerged time foraging on sea grass, like this one below, as well as jellies and invertebrates.

But turtles breathe air and must surface at regular intervals to refill their lungs.

They labor on land, moving slowly and awkwardly. They use their flippers as best they can, but the earth is not water.

Sea turtles are about four feet long (1.2 m) and weigh up to 400 pounds (181 kg). They generally live about 80 years.

So turtles are omnivores and built to swim and flourish in the water.

Conversely, tortoises are strictly land creatures. They cannot swim.

Their carapaces are heavy and domed for protection against predators. Their legs are short and sturdy to accommodate the heft. Their feet are padded and stumpy, and the front legs are scaled to protect the tortoise while burrowing.

We found this gopher tortoise while visiting the Jacksonville Botanical Gardens. It was about the size of a dinner plate. We were surprised at how quickly it was moving because tortoises are generally very slow. Things to do.

There is dispute about how far back into the ages turtles and tortoises go. But it doesn’t take a scientist to look at their ancient faces and see they are very old creatures.

And that brings us to the longest living land animal in the world: the Giant Tortoise.

While many of the Giant Tortoise species are now extinct, we still have a few living species on remote islands in the Seychelles and Galapagos.

I was fortunate to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos Islands, where they have a breeding program and conservation practices for the perpetuation of the Giant Tortoise. To date there are 16 separate populations on ten of the largest Galapagos Islands.

We spent the afternoon in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island (Galapagos), where we came upon several of these most mesmerizing and magnificent creatures.

They have an average lifespan of 90-100 years, though there are records of some living longer, up to 188 years. They are herbivores, foraging on grasses, cacti, and fruit; and move very, very slowly.

We patiently and appreciatively watched this Galapagos Tortoise on the trail. It took about 20 minutes for it to travel 60 feet (18 m).

They are the Granddaddy of all tortoises, some weighing up to 919 pounds (417 kg).

That day it was quiet in the highland forest, and the tortoises were docile. Except for one sound.

They can pull their heads into their carapaces, like many tortoises and turtles, and when they do the most astounding thing happens. This slow and quiet animal releases a loud hissing sound.

The hiss is the result of the individual releasing the air in its lungs to make room inside the shell for the head.

We came upon these three Galapagos Tortoises sleeping in the mud, while ducks paddled and frigatebirds circled overhead.

The sleeping tortoises looked like boulders.

Every few minutes, a frigatebird, one of Earth’s largest sea birds, would dip its bill into the pond and take a sip.

For more info about Turtle and Tortoises differences click here — Turtle vs. Tortoise.

Turtles and tortoises, several hundred different species on our planet. They use the sun to create their energy and walk through life with a shell on their back. That is one unusual and beautiful being.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Georgia Insects

Visiting an unfamiliar region yields a plethora of new wildlife species to discover. Here are a dozen insect species we came upon recently while adventuring in the State of Georgia.

In many places in the northern hemisphere, the weather in October brings increasingly cold weather and less insects. But in the southern states the cold weather is often not as extreme or as long-lasting.

Last month in southeast Georgia, it was in the Fahrenheit 80s and 90s (27-32 Celsius) and insects were still abundant.

Butterflies are one of our planet’s most decorated insects, and the numerous species in Georgia did not disappoint.

The Gulf Fritillary, photographed above, appeared often, lighting on a variety of flowers. Like so many butterflies, the markings on the dorsal (top) side and the ventral (underside) are different, boasting two unique looks on the same individual.

Another exotic southern butterfly is the Zebra Longwing.

I have seen this species in Texas and Florida on previous trips, and was delighted to find about a dozen of them fluttering among the weeds behind the Dairy Queen. I’ve read they roost in groups of up to 60 at night, for protection.

The insect I was most fascinated with on this trip was the Cattail Toothpick Grasshopper. They have unusually pointy heads and long, thin bodies, much like a toothpick.

One day I had the joy of watching this grasshopper species in the marsh grass. I was walking along the dock when I noticed one effortlessly sail from one thin marsh reed to another. I was mesmerized as it danced across the reeds and out of sight.

Dragonflies, like butterflies, are insects that offer a kaleidoscope of bright colors and interesting markings. Add to that their compound eyes and shimmery wings, and you have one of Earth’s masterpieces.

We were spotting birds at a stagnant-looking pond covered with duckweed, when this flamboyant pink dragonfly, below, greeted us. A roseate skimmer.

Then minutes after the Roseate Dragonfly visit, a Roseate Spoonbill flew overhead. What a rosy day.

While on a boat tour in the Okefenokee Swamp, this Eastern Pondhawk Dragonfly, below, kept landing next to my feet. The boat was fiberglass with a flat bottom, and I cannot imagine the dragonfly particularly liked the fiberglass. So maybe she liked the boat’s vibration, or maybe she just felt like hitching a ride.

Other Georgia dragonflies that greeted us were the Eastern Amberwing with its dazzling gossamer red wings…

… and the dashing blue dasher.

One day for about five minutes, this handsome grasshopper landed on the patio. The vertical brown body part is his wings.

I found this wasp especially beautiful in its striking geometric markings.

And here are a few more butterflies, because we can never have too many butterflies in this world.

A pair of mating Cassius Blue Butterflies and, in the subsequent photo, a Cloudless Sulphur.

Lastly, one of my favorite butterflies while in Georgia: the Palamedes Swallowtail Butterfly. You can see how big it is in comparison to the Plumbago flowers. Swallowtail butterflies, from the Papilionidae family, are some of the largest butterflies on our planet.

Insects are integral to our planet. Some resources say that insects comprise 80-90% of the animal life forms on Earth.

I still have Georgia reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals to share with you. But for now, we can find glory in these most amazing insects.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.