Yellow-billed Magpie

California Oak Woodland

I started birding in the 1990s, and there were always places we could reliably find the yellow-billed magpie. They like the oak trees in California’s Central Valley, and could easily be found in oak woodlands and pastures. As non-migratory birds, they don’t stray far from their communal roosting spots.

 

We have 673 bird species in California. Only two are endemic, i.e. unique to California. This bird is one of the two endemics. It occurs nowhere else in the world. (Island Scrubjay is the other). Range map below.

 

A large bird in the Corvidae  family, Pica nutalli make a splashy appearance with a tail longer than its body, and a bright yellow bill. Their black and white markings exhibit a flashing effect in flight. In addition, when they perch just right in the sunlight, the light changes their black wings to turquoise.

 

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

 

The black-billed magpies, their close relative, have this black-to-turquoise feature, too. We saw a flock in Montana a few years ago.

 

Black-billed Magpie, Montana

Black-billed Magpie, Montana

The magpies are raucous, much like their cousins the crows and jays–squawk a lot. They are easy to spot because of their big size, flashy colors, and vocal presence.  Click here to listen to one. 

 

But then in 2003 a mosquito-transmitted disease, the West Nile Virus, struck the North American corvid family and other bird species too. Humans and horses were also victims. (One percent of humans develop severe symptoms.)

 

Many birds suffered a precipitous decline, especially in the years 2004-2006. The yellow-billed magpie population fell by 49%.

Yellow-billed Magpie. Photo courtesy 10000birds.com

After a few years, some bird species made a comeback, built immunity. But others, including the yellow-billed magpie, continued to decline.

 

For years whenever we were in the Central Valley, we repeatedly returned to the same oaks with hopes of finding our old friends the yellow-billed magpies. But there were none.

 

You can imagine the plethora of scientific studies and surveys that were conducted for this unique, endemic bird. There were heightened efforts to understand and turn around the decline of this rapidly disappearing bird; they still continue today. Their conservation status is listed as Vulnerable, some say it should be Endangered.

 

Last month, while birding in the Central Valley, we did our usual cruising around the oaks looking for the yellow-billed magpies where we formerly saw them. We have been doing this every year,  to no avail, since the early 2000s.

 

And guess what?

 

Three flew into the oak tree just as we were driving by. They only stayed for about five minutes, but it was enough time to slam on the brakes, hop out of the car with all our gear, and go wildly running to the oak trees.

 

It was pure joy to see this rowdy bird again. They flew in as if nothing had ever happened.

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

A showy bird, found only in California, one that can change colors from black to turquoise merely by standing in the sun. Add to their remarkableness, their declining population is making a recovery.

 

That’s an incredible bird. Now let’s just hope they can continue recovery.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

 

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

 

Range Map for Yellow-billed Magpie

Range map for Yellow-billed Magpie. Courtesy allaboutbirds.com

 

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The Delta’s Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

I had the pleasure of recently visiting what Northern Californians call “The Delta.” It’s been a winter with abundant rain, and we saw thousands of sandhill cranes.

 

The Delta is a low-lying valley at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Known for its fertile land, many agricultural crops are grown here; but in the winter, the fields are empty and only stubble remains.

 

Winter rain accumulations flood the open fields, and this is where cranes can be found. Simply slowing down and driving the back roads brought us endless delights.

 

Tundra Swans and Northern Shovelers

 

Antigone canadensis spend their winter living in this mild venue, from about November to February, then head north. In February, they return to northern North America and northeastern Siberia to breed.

 

Primarily herbivorous, sandhill cranes prefer shallow wetlands with vegetation; they can be seen congregating in the fields, probing their long, strong bills into the flooded waters as they search for seeds and sometimes insects, frogs, or other fare.

 

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

 

Wikipedia Sandhill Cranes

 

They are tall birds, ranging in height from 41 to 48 inches (104-122 cm). Wingspan is 73-84″ (185-213 cm).

 

In spite of the birds’ tall stature, their light, sand-colored bodies easily camouflage. They blend into the fields.

 

Sandhill Cranes; parent on right, juvenile on left

 

At first all we saw was a few  dozen cranes, here and there; easy to see with the levee water as a backdrop. Dazzling birds, so elegant and stately.

 

Sandhill cranes, California

As birders, we scan with our binoculars constantly. The sky, telephone lines, and in this setting, the fields. Scanning, always scanning.

 

That’s how we found a huge, nearly invisible flock. We had come to the end of a back road, entertained by many birds.

 

Black Phoebe

 

Then with a gasp, Athena spotted a quiet flock of 2,500 cranes.

 

Staying quiet and standing behind the car to avoid disturbing them, we soaked up the bliss of this crane abundance for nearly an hour, listened appreciatively to their trumpeting sounds. In that time, six other cars came and went without ever noticing the large flock.

 

The flock didn’t photograph well, so spread out, hazy light.

 

Black-necked Stilts

Our journey to the Delta was later in the crane season this year, and it was easy to see they would be returning to their breeding grounds soon. Mating dances had started up.

 

This male was demonstrating his prowess by picking up dirt clods, tossing them in the air, and then fluttering skillfully into suspended animation.

 

Sandhill Crane dance

 

How fortunate to find thousands of cranes, cavorting in the fields, safe in their winter home, fattening up before they make the long and arduous flight to their breeding grounds.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Sandhill Cranes, Lodi, Calif.

 

 

Belize Wildlife, Part 2 of 2

Brown Basalisk Lizard in Belize

In addition to the abundant bird species found in Belize, as featured last week, there is also an impressive array of reptiles, mammals, and insects. Welcome to Part 2 of the Belize Wildlife series.

 

 Part 1 of Belize Wildlife. 

 

Native to Belize, the brown basilisk lizard is known for its ability to “walk on water.” With large hind feet and web-like toes, they fly so quickly across the water’s surface that it produces the illusion of the lizard running on water.

 

A quiet river boat ride revealed this basilisk lizard basking beside the river. Like most lizards, the basilisks have varying colors.

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

The green iguana, which is not always green, was prevalent in many parts of the country. They are the largest lizard in Belize. We came upon this one on the outskirts of Belize City, he was about three feet long (.91 m) without the tail.

Green Iguana, Belize

Deeper into the jungle we were greeted by a troop of Gautemalan black howler monkeys. We had been birding in a Maya ruin, Lamanai, when we found the howlers lazily enjoying figs overhead. They were quiet in this scene, but other times we could hear their eerie, formidable howling from miles away.

 

Click to hear the black howler monkey.

 

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

 

Maya ruin, Lamanai, Mask Temple

An old abandoned sugar mill in this same Maya ruin had been taken over by aggressive vines, supporting numerous varieties of bats, bugs, and birds.

 

Bats, Lamanai

 

 

Montezuma Oropendola on nest, Belize

 

Leafcutter ants, my favorite kind of ant, were also in the rainforest. Columns of ants steadily marched down the trail, each ant carrying a piece of leaf they had chewed and cut.

 

The largest and most complex animal society on earth other than humans, leafcutter ants carry twenty times their body weight, as they dutifully deliver their leaf piece to the communal mound.

 

Leafcutter Ants

 

Where there are ants, there are antbirds.

Dusky Antbird, Belize

 

Life in the rainforest can be brutal. Assassin bugs are known for painful stabbing and lethal saliva.

Assassin bug

 

One dark night after dinner, we found this bad boy on our doorknob. Fortunately it was outside and not inside, and I was wearing a headlamp so I could see not to touch the knob.

 

Belize Scorpion

 

It is the abundance of bugs that attract birds–there were beautiful flycatchers here.

Vermillion Flycatcher, Belize

 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Belize

 

Heading east out of Belize’s rainforests, the traveler eventually finds the dazzling waters of the Caribbean Sea. There’s nothing more calming after jungle mosquitos than a cool sea breeze.

 

Ambergris Caye, Belize

The coast of Belize is comprised of a series of coral reefs, with 450 cayes and seven marine reserves.

Aerial view of Belizean coast

Sea mammals we found snorkeling were southern stingrays and green sea turtles.

Southern Stingray, Belize

Green Sea Turtle, Belize, Ambergris Caye

 

Snorkeling with Southern Stingrays, Belize Barrier Reef

 

While walking the white sand beaches, black spiny-tailed iguanas were a common sight. This frisky pair scuttled up and down a tree trunk.

 

With over 600 species of birds and a plethora of other wildlife, Belize is a tropical menagerie. Thank you for joining me on this two-part adventure.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Northern Jacana

 

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

 

 

Belize Wildlife, Part 1 of 2

Agami Heron

Situated on the eastern coast of Central America, Belize has many geographical features that culminate in a land rich in fauna and flora. Please join me for a two-part wildlife series, visiting this exotic country.

 

We’ll start with the birds of Belize; and in the second part, next week, we’ll look at all the other wildlife.

 

There are 603 different bird species in Belize…that’s a lot for a small country of 8,800 square miles (22,800 sq. km.). The large country of Canada, for perspective, has 686 bird species.

 

Parrots and toucans say “tropical” right from the start.

 

Mealy Parrot

 

Keel-billed Toucan, Belize’s national bird

 

Olive-throated Parakeet

 

Positioned between South and North America, Belize is part of a corridor called the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. This is a natural land bridge between the two continents, crucial for animal migration. It contains 7-10% of the world’s wildlife species.

 

Caribbean Sea from Belize boat

 

In addition, Belize is bordered on the east by the Caribbean Sea, offering a plethora of coastal sea life. The Belize Barrier Reef is approximately 190 miles (300 km) long, and is part of a larger reef system yielding hundreds of species of fish, coral, and invertebrates.

 

Where there are fish, there are fish-hunting birds. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the Belize Barrier Reef is a playground for birdwatching and many other water sports and activities.

 

Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans, and more, Belize

Birds found along coastal Belize include the waders, like herons, as well as pelicans, frigatebirds, shorebirds, and many more.

 

Little Blue Heron

 

Boat-billed Heron

 

Some bird species live in Belize year-round, and others migrate here for the winter. This summer tanager below, for example, spends the winter enjoying Belize’s warm weather and a diet of bees and wasps; then flies north in summer to breed in parts of Central and North America.

 

Summer Tanager, Blue Hole Nat’l Park, Belize

 

The turquoise waters of the Caribbean are not easy to leave behind, but nonetheless we headed westward to the interior of the country, finding a luxuriant terrestrial habitat, well worth the effort.

 

Inland lagoons and rivers attract jabiru, kingfishers, raptors, spoonbills…to name just a few.

 

Jabiru, Belize at Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary

 

Green Kingfisher, Belize

 

Snail Kite

 

Roseate Spoonbill

 

Thirty-seven percent of Belize’s land territory is protected, more than most small countries.

 

Belize Wikipedia

 

Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is a protected wetland, one of my favorite places in Belize. Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is another protected nature reserve on the eastern slopes of the Maya Mountains.

 

Rufous-tailed jacamar, Belize

 

Yellow-throated Euphonia eating a banana, Belize

 

There are also many Mayan ruins in Belize, an additional source of open space and wildlife in jungle environments. Here we saw many species of trogons and songbirds, and bigger woodland birds like oropendulas and guans.

 

Black-headed Trogon, Belize

 

Montezuma Oropendola, Belize

 

Crested Guan

 

Hummingbirds thrive here. Of the 300-350 hummingbird species in the world, Belize hosts an amazing 26 species (there are about a dozen hummingbird species in the U.S.).

 

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird

 

Ascending into the mountains, the habitat and weather change, yielding rare falcon species, hawks, and owls.

 

Orange-breasted Falcon, Belize

 

White Hawk, Belize

 

Mottled Owl, Belize

 

Join me next week in the second half of this two-part series, celebrating all the other delightful wildlife we came across.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander, all taken in Belize.

Black-collared Hawk

 

Wildlife in the NFL

Male Lion, Serengeti, Africa

 

The affinity people have for animals is deeply rooted in our past, and continues to this day. All around us are signs of animal love, even in America’s National Football League. Since we are currently in the clutches of the NFL playoff season, let’s take a fun look at wildlife-based team names.

 

Of the 32 NFL teams, nearly half echo wildlife species: five are birds, ten are mammals. (Many mascots, major, and minor league teams have wildlife themes as well–too many to cover here.)

 

In no specific order, the first photo represents the Detroit Lions. Then there are the:

 

Seattle Seahawks

Osprey in Mexico

 

Los Angeles Rams

Male Bighorn Sheep aka Rams, Colorado

 

Baltimore Ravens

Common Raven, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

Buffalo Bills

African Buffalo, Botswana

 

Atlanta Falcons

Laughing Falcon, Belize

 

Most of the NFL animal names conjure up images of toughness, but not all. The Dolphins, for example, are not an intimidating mammal; and Colts don’t leave me trembling. But Bengals, Jaguars and Panthers, yes, they are wild animals we don’t want to mess with. Broncos can be dangerous, but the amplified horse neigh sound in the Denver stadium is more entertaining than scary.

 

If you’re wondering about my favorite team, I have many. I hail from a long line of Cheesehead ancestors, diehard fans of the Green Bay Packers. My cousin, for example, did a eulogy at my mother’s funeral wearing a giant yellow foam cheese wedge on her head.

 

Beyond what I was born into, my next favorite team is Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. This is a cake I baked last year for Super Bowl Sunday, with Tom Brady on top.

 

Super Bowl cake with Tom Brady on top

 

More teams include the:

Philadelphia Eagles

Bald Eagle, California

 

Arizona Cardinals:

Red-crested Cardinal, Hawaii

 

I don’t just follow two teams, I follow them all. I have numerous favorite quarterbacks, and dozens of favorite offensive and defensive players.

 

I enjoy the game for the athleticism, strategy, complexity, excitement, and ingenuity. The drive for excellence is endlessly inspiring to me.

 

But my football merriment is nothing in comparison to many fanatical fans. We took these photos from the television in a recent nail-biter playoff game.

 

Philadelphia Eagles fan

 

Chicago Bears fan

 

And since we’re talking about football, how could Jet Eliot mention NFL team names without a nod to the Jets?

for the New York Jets

 

For the next few weeks we will be celebrating the completion and winner of the 2018-2019 football season. It’s great to have these burly teams showcasing the same wildlife that many of us revere.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Wikipedia links: National Football League and American Football Positions

 

Chicago Bears

Grizzly Bear, Alaska

 

Winter Ducks and More

Green-winged Teal, male

This time of year we are greeted in Northern California by half a million ducks. They literally flock to the mild winter climates of the Pacific Flyway; spend the winter here, and then in late January or February head north to their breeding grounds.

Green-winged Teal, Cosumnes River Preserve

The Pacific Flyway is a bird migration route that extends from Alaska down to Patagonia; it runs through central California. The area featured here, the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, encompasses several refuges and is centered near California’s capital city, Sacramento. But these migratory birds can be found in winter throughout the Flyway, in numerous refuges spanning the state.

 

Here are six of my favorite migrating ducks. Each duck species breeds in a different place; I have linked each one for more information.

 

The Green-winged Teal, with its dazzling green eye patch, is one of the smallest ducks we have in North America. They are abundant in wetlands, preferring shallow ponds.

 

Buffleheads have some kind of magic over me because no matter what I am doing, I always stop to observe this stunning duck. From a distance the male looks black and white, but in certain revelatory light the black on his head is actually iridescent patches of green and purple.

 

Bufflehead pair; male, left; female, right

 

It rains in winter a lot (if we are lucky), and I don’t mind that; but it’s the sunny days when the Cinnamon Teal glows a spectacular burnished red.   Typical of teals, this species is a small duck, and sexually dimorphic (males and females exhibit different physical characteristics).

 

Cinnamon Teal pair, male in front.

 

Mating pair of Cinnamon Teal

 

Then there’s the Northern Pintail. An elegant duck with a long neck and pointy pin-style tail. They can be found in many other northern continents.

 

Northern Pintail, male, Colusa Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, Calif.

 

Northern Pintails at Sacramento NWR

 

Similar to the pintail in size is the northern shoveler. Northern Shovelers can be mistaken for mallards due to their similar color patterns…until you look closely at the spatulate bill. Named for its shovel-like bill, the northern shoveler is yet another stunner whether floating or flying.

 

Male Northern Shoveler

 

Northern Shoveler, California

 

Bigger than teals and smaller than shovelers, the American Wigeon is another migrating duck commonly seen in the winter Pacific Flyway. They breed in much of Canada and Alaska, and spend their winters in milder parts of the U.S.

American Wigeon, male

American Wigeon pair, male on right

 

I would be remiss if I didn’t give you a few photos of other winter denizens of the area. Not ducks at all, the following winter birds add a flair of avian beauty to the waters.

 

Sandhill cranes congregate every winter in the shallow fields.

 

Sandhill Cranes in rice field

 

Bald eagles get their feet wet, too.

 

Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR, California

 

We found this flock of White-faced Ibis hopping around in a frenzy one rainy afternoon. They use their long sickle-shaped bills to probe for snails, crayfish, fish, and frogs.

 

Flock of White-faced Ibis, Colusa NWR

 

White-faced Ibis

 

Geese are easily the most abundant wintering migrant to the Pacific Flyway, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Ducks and geese in this Complex tally ten million.

 

Snow Geese

 

If you have the occasion to be in Northern California, it is well worth a few days of winter adventuring to spend time here. But don’t wait, most of the birds will be gone in a month, headed north.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander

Snow geese

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Joy in the New Year

Green Honeycreeper, male, Trinidad

In this fresh new year — try to find a spark of  joy in every day.

 

It could be a spot of bright nature;

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

 

or something new you’ve never seen before;

 

Male Kudu, Botswana, Chobe River

 

Conversely, joy could appear in something you see every day, but never stopped to appreciate.

 

Monarch Butterfly, Horicon Marsh, WI

 

Twelve-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly, California

 

We can find joy in remarkable human engineering feats;

Sydney Opera House, Australia

 

or inspiring people;

 

Gandhi Statue, The Ferry Building, San Francisco

 

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC

or art, so many forms of art.

Ancient Kangaroo Rock Art, Kakadu NP, Australia

Chihuly Sea Star, Seattle, WA

 

Some of the most cheerful joy comes in simple forms.

American Robin nest, Wisconsin

California Honeysuckle, lonicera

 

There will be times, however, in the new year when difficulty or despair take over.

 

Joy might not be readily accessible in the darkness.

 

Olympic Peninsula, Washington

 

For these times, go to sleep, rest…

 

Grey-headed Flying Foxes, Sydney, Australia

 

… and try again tomorrow.

Warmest thanks to my blogging friends and readers, for a year filled with joyful sweet moments, warm words, happy smiles, vicarious adventures, stunning images, and heartfelt sharing.  Gentle wishes for a new year filled with joy.

Written by Jet Eliot
All photos by Athena Alexander.

 

White-bellied Woodstar, Peru

 

Maui, Hawaii