Creatures of the Night

When the sun goes down and the night turns black this Halloween, there are plenty of wildlife creatures to send shivers up the spine.

Owls, our most famous nocturnal creature, have serrated feathers for silent flight. They can glide right past you invisibly and soundlessly…all you know is a faint breeze on your face.

The shadows of the rainforest can make the small creatures large…

and the large creatures gigantic.

And where would our scary nights be without bats? In Australia the bats are so big their scientific name is megabats. Here are two species of megabats.

In the Trinidad rainforest we discovered a steady stream of these Long-tongued Bats shooting out of the lodge basement every night at cocktail hour, like clockwork.

A walk through the Australian rainforest brings out animals most of us have never heard of like brushtail possums and sugar-gliders.

Even creatures who are not nocturnal, like this lizard, lurk in the night…they have to sleep somewhere.

One night while Athena was photographing sugar gliders, cicadas came in, attracted to the lodge’s yard light.

I was admiring their bright green color and thinking how much bigger their cicadas were here in Australia, than ours at home. Bigger than my thumb.

I thought they were very cool…until one landed in my hair.

I screamed. Panicked and beat my hands through my hair like a crazy person.

And Africa has a very animated night life when it comes to wildlife. Moths as big as birds; and of course all the nocturnal mammals that are out hunting–lions, leopards, hyenas, to name a few.

The African savanna at night is like no other place on earth. Bumping along in a jeep past the black expanse, at first you see nothing. But then you start to see eerie eyes shining back at you. Pairs of eyes. Everywhere.

The eye shine has to do with a reflective layer behind the retina that helps the animal see better in the dark.

We were cruising along when we heard a lot of sloshing. The guide whispered for us to get our cameras ready.

Here’s what the light revealed.

The most terrifying night sound I have ever heard was in the Amazon rainforest: the howler monkeys. I’ve mentioned it before, but will include a sound clip again.

Howler monkeys are territorial so when one starts howling, announcing its supreme existence, they all start up. It has a stereo effect that permeates the forest in the most haunting way, sounds like a combination of tornado winds and deep-voiced gorillas.

Imagine hearing this in the dark as you’re walking to the bathroom.

Howler Monkey Vocalization

Wild monkeys, hyenas, leopards, owls, bats…a great way to get your Halloween sufficiently spooky. And while these animals may get your heart jumping, erratically even, they’re really not interested in hurting you…well, some aren’t.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Phoebes

In the Americas we have three species of phoebes, a songbird in the flycatcher family. Recently a Black Phoebe has been regularly visiting my window, reminding me of the sweet beauty of phoebes.

We have two of the three phoebe species in Northern California year-round: Black and Say’s. The third species, the Eastern Phoebe, lives in the central and eastern part of the continent, never comes to California.

There are Old World flycatchers and Tyrant flycatchers, hundreds of species across the globe. Phoebes are Tyrant flycatchers, genus Sayornis.

Every summer we have migrant flycatchers nest and breed on our property, then around August they fly south. Once the migrant flycatchers have left, the Black Phoebe arrives, spends the winter here. Usually it’s just one individual…and that individual is here now.

Black Phoebes are commonly seen in their range. They especially like to be near water, and are often seen pumping their tails.

Being flycatchers, phoebes eat insects. They have an endearing way of hunting. From their perch, they chase after the insect in a seemingly random flight—swoops and half-circles, zigs and zags.

In the bird world we use the verb “sally” to describe flycatcher flight.

I love to watch flycatchers for this. They look a little loony, because invariably you cannot see the insect and it looks like the bird is losing its balance, or sanity, or both. But of course the bird is not mixed up at all, it’s successfully hunting.

The second North American phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, lives in the western half of the continent. They live in grasslands and are accordingly different shades of tan, brown, and gold, sometimes peach depending on the light.

The third North American phoebe is the Eastern Phoebe, found in the continent’s middle and east. Due to the cold winters, Eastern Phoebes have a large migrating range.

Sayornis phoebe -Owen Conservation Park, Madison, Wisconsin, USA-8.jpg
Eastern Phoebe Photo: John Benson. Courtesy Wikipedia

All three phoebe range maps are displayed below.

I don’t get to see Eastern Phoebes too often, so here are two links from bird-loving blogger friends who live east of the Rockies:

Eastern Phoebe at Photos by Donna

Eastern Phoebe at H.J. Ruiz-Avian 101

We see phoebes perched most of the time. Even when they sally out for an insect, they then return to the same perch.

Strip away all the facts, and the real enchantment comes every day when the Black Phoebe comes to visit. I hear the chipping sound and come to the window and wait. Lately Phoebe has been perching on the railing of our deck. If I stay inside, the bird will start catching insects close to the house, so I use the house as a blind and watch from inside.

These have not been the easiest days lately for anyone. So a cheerful Black Phoebe at my window brightens the whole day.

I say, “Hi Phoebe, so nice to see you again.”

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander except Eastern Phoebe.

Phoebe range maps below. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org.

Range Map for Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe Range Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org

Range Map for Say's Phoebe
Say’s Phoebe Rang Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org

Range Map for Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe Range Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org

Mangrove Magic

As the effects of climate change continue to unfold, mangrove trees have become Earth’s heroes. Not only are they environmentally beneficial, they provide us with hours of fun observing life in the mud and roots.

Found in tropical and sub-tropical tidal ecosystems, mangrove trees have long, woody roots that live and proliferate in salt water.

In earlier centuries, mangroves were often removed to develop coastal land, but fortunately that is changing. As people discover the benefits of mangroves, there has been a steady increase in many countries to restore them.

In addition to providing a habitat for wildlife, these trees and shrubs have been found to filter sediments and reduce erosion. The list of environmental benefits is long.

More importantly, especially now as coastal storms increase, mangrove roots protect against the brunt of wave action during storms and cyclones; and are carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

A NASA study declared mangrove forests to be “among the planet’s best carbon scrubbers.”

More info: Wikipedia Mangrove

Belize, a small country on the northeastern Central American coast, has been a world leader in revitalizing mangrove habitat.

This agami heron in Belize’s mangroves is happy about that.

Significant mangrove swamps, or mangal, occur in parts of Mexico, one being the San Blas habitat, where this white ibis was photographed.

Other mangrove forests in the New World include South and Central America.

On a boat trip to see scarlet ibis in Trinidad, we cruised through this mangrove swamp.

I got a little nervous when I spotted coiled boa snakes in the mangroves above us, but the guide simply shrugged.

In the U.S., mangroves grow along the coast of Florida, primarily in the south, and the Key West islands. Louisiana and South Texas also have mangrove forests.

We came upon this flock of mixed waders under a mangrove in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, in southwest Florida. Here they have three species of mangrove: red, white, and black. Notice the mangrove roots beneath the leaves on the right side.

Floating in an inflatable zodiac boat in the Galapagos Islands, we found this trio of penguins peering out from under the mangroves.

In the eastern hemisphere there are even more mangrove forests, in Southeast Asia and many other countries (map at end). Indonesia has over 9 million hectares of mangrove forests. India boasts 46 mangrove species, representing about 57% of the world’s mangrove species.

Australia also has an extensive ecosystem of mangroves and salt marshes. In recent years Australia has suffered mangrove habitat loss, and many research projects are now devoted to uncovering the reason and protecting the habitat.

This mangrove wetland in Kakadu National Park in northern Australia includes ducks and other waders…

and the ubiquitous crocodiles.

I especially liked watching the jacanas, because their feet distribute their weight to effortlessly walk atop lily pads. This photo highlights the bird’s long right toe digits.

We found many of these large-leafed lilies in the mangrove swamps of Kakadu.

Even in the bustling Australian city of Cairns, the fifth largest city in Queensland, there were miles of coastal mangroves and mudflats. While other people were frolicking in the swimming area or relaxed on a bench under a palm, Athena and I were absolutely enthralled with all the mud creatures in the mangroves. Crabs, fish, mudskippers and more.

This spoonbill was busy catching fish in its large spatulate bill.

Ahhh, mangroves. They thrive in salt water, soak up carbon dioxide, soften the blow of a tropical storm, and stabilize the coast. And on top of all that, they provide food and protection for numerous wildlife all over the world. No wonder I love to cruise through these swamps.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Mangrove Distribution. Courtesy Wikipedia.

White-crowned Sparrow

A commonly found bird in North America, the white-crowned sparrow is anything but common…it is extraordinary. I recently watched one in my friends’ garden sipping water under an apple tree, and was reminded of the uniqueness of this songbird.

Except for Florida and parts of the southern east coast, they can be found across America, Canada, and Mexico. Although we have them year-round on the California coast, the white-crowned sparrow migrates in many parts of the continent. Range map at end.

They are a dapper bird, as you can see, but it is their song that sets them apart.

As a brief primer, I remind you that every songbird species has their own song–a series of sounds like call notes, warnings, scoldings, for example; and in addition, a song. The song is generally used for mating and territorial purposes, and is instantly recognizable to bird enthusiasts. In fact, that is how we often identify birds when we cannot see them.

I can stand in a forest or a parking lot, and know exactly what species of avian friends are in my presence, without opening my eyes. It took me roughly five years to accomplish bird identification by sound. If I am outside my home state or country, it takes more study.

But for white-crowned sparrows, the game is different.

The songs of white-crowned sparrows are one of the most studied in all of ornithology, due to the unusual variations in dialect.

This one species, which has five sub-species, has different song variations, or dialects, depending on where they are. Just like humans have different dialects depending on location, so do the white-crown sparrows.

I find it especially thrilling to travel to different parts of the continent and hear different white-crowned sparrow songs.

Males do most of the singing in this species, though there are singing females that have been noted. They learn their original song, in their first two or three months of life, from their natal neighborhood. Then they may migrate, and have offspring, and the new song distribution begins. There are many elaborate theories, studies, and graduate papers about the different dialects.

White-crowned Sparrow info

Here are four different recordings of a white-crowned sparrow song that I found in xeno-canto.org. You can hear how different the songs are (click on link, then on red and gray arrow).

Recorded in Manitoba, Canada

Recorded in Alaska, Denali NP, USA

Recorded in San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA

Recorded in Mississippi, USA

The song we hear in the Bay Area is recorded above, and that’s what I hear outside my window. I have been hearing it as I composed this post. We have a juvenile on the grounds, who only sings half of the song…he’s still learning.

The appearance of a white-crowned sparrow differs slightly depending again on where you are, most notably the bill color. All photos here were taken in California, the nuttalli sub-species.

It is difficult to differentiate the sub-species by sight alone, because the variations are slight. These minute details are what nerdy birders (like me) like to stand around discussing.

Immatures look different than adults, with brown and gray head stripes, as you can see below.

With their handsome black-and-white-striped plumage and clear, resonating song, I find their place on this earth especially sweet.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander

Zonotrichia leucophrys map.svg
Range map White-crowned Sparrow. Orange=breeding, Yellow=migration, Blue=non-breeding, Purple=Year-round. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Berkeley Marina

Berkeley Marina

Evacuated again, and another repeat of three years ago, fleeing our home in the dark amid raging winds, with pink and red fire plumes billowing around us.

The car was filled with computers and photo albums and hastily packed suitcases.

We’re safe though.

This one is called the Glass Fire, named after some mountain road near the fire’s origin. It has burned all week, destroyed homes and wineries and parks, and continues to burn. It is only 5% contained, despite unending acts of heroism. The cause is under investigation.

The fire came within ten miles of our home, but has fortunately steered in the opposite direction. Many people were not so lucky.

As many of you know, water is the soothing attraction when Athena and I encounter the threat of fires. This time we found ourselves down at the Berkeley Marina. Our dear friends in Berkeley opened their adjacent cottage to us, fed us meals and cheered us up, always masked and from a safe distance.

Down at the San Francisco Bay, the fog was coming in, cool and refreshing. You can see it on the horizon (center).

Berkeley Marina

Bay Area cities like Berkeley often get the ashes and smoke of our fires from the north. This time, however, the winds were in a different direction and we were blessed with cool fog and fresh air. I’ve heard the toxic miasma has since arrived.

The boats are moored in a quiet inlet, but just around the corner is the big bay. It was windy, the water had white caps. The driving wind is what is wreaking havoc on the fires.

You can see San Francisco across the bay, and the fog.

San Francisco from the Berkeley Marina

Berkeley pier, fog in the background. Hidden beneath the fog is the Golden Gate Bridge.

We were evacuated for three nights, but are back home now. We have a home to return to, a wonderful thing. The air is choked with smoke and toxins because the fires are still raging. We may need to evacuate again, are prepared to flee.

We soldier on, and this will end, but meanwhile we are grateful for the love and friendships of you, our friends, and the smiles of strangers. I can see the smiles, even under the face masks.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, taken at a different time.

The Birds and Bodega Bay

Hitchcock on Tides Pier, 1962, Bodega Bay, California. Photo courtesy Footsteps in the Fog.

 

The Birds movie poster

 

Hitchcock on the set with fake birds, Bodega Bay, California. Photo courtesy Footsteps in the Fog.

 

Alfred Hitchcock and his crews descended on this sleepy hamlet in Northern California to film “The Birds” in 1962. Here is a fun look at Bodega Bay during filming, and today.

 

Almost all landmarks from the 1962 filming days are gone now. The real charm of the town, however, still exists: a quiet fishing community. This is what Hitchcock liked about it back in the early 1960s, and it’s why I go there several times a year.

 

Fishing Boat on Bodega Bay at Low Tide

 

Bodega Bay Clamming at Low Tide.

 

The original story for the Birds was a short story written by Daphne du Maurier. Set on the Cornish coast, it’s about a farmer and his family and unusual bird behavior. It’s a rather dull story. Then Hitchcock came along and injected his craft as a suspenseful filmmaker; created a memorable and terrifying horror-thriller that can still send shivers up our movie-watching spines.

 

The downtown featured in the film was mainly a set built by crews. They built facades to look like whole buildings.  There is no downtown in Bodega Bay, nor has there ever been.

 

In addition, Hitchcock cinematically combined the real Bodega Bay with two other nearby towns, to make it look more bustling than it really was. Over 50 years later and Bodega Bay is, thankfully, still not bustling.

 

One aspect that remains today: The Tides.

 

In 1962, The Tides was on Bodega Bay’s waterfront with a small motel and restaurant on the road; and down at the water was a wharf and fish shops.

The Tides Motel and Restaurant, 1963, Bodega Bay, California. Photo courtesy Footsteps in the Fog.

At the time of filming, Hitchcock and The Tides owner, Mitch Zankich, made a deal. Hitchcock could use The Tides for shooting the film at no cost, if Mitch could have three things: a small speaking part in the film, the actual name of “The Tides” in the film, and the male lead character named after him.

 

This is Mitch Zankich on a pier at The Tides in 1962. A true entrepreneur.

Mitch Zankich at The Tides, 1962. Photo courtesy Footsteps in the Fog.

 

Today The Tides is in the same location, but the old buildings are gone, and the complex is a contemporary building with two restaurants, a fish market, and a gift shop. You can enjoy lunch on the pier and watch fishing boats and crews, pelicans, sea lions and gulls. Anyone passing through Bodega Bay stops here–hot food, snacks, bathrooms.

The Tides in Modern Day, Bodega Bay, California

 

They have framed 1962 promotional posters; and fake crows humorously staged in the rafters. This kitschy booth also attracts attention.

Staged crow scene at The Tide, Bodega Bay, California.

 

Bodega Bay is a place filled with birds…not like in the movie, of course, with crows murdering farmers and terrorizing young children.

 

But a handsome migration of shorebirds and ducks occurs here every winter, attracting Bay Area birders like me.

Birds over Bodega Bay, California

 

Western Gull, Bodega Bay, California. Sea lion in water, center photo.

Birds used in the film were an innovative combination of real, papier mache, and mechanical. Special effects and production techniques added a lot, too.

 

To film large flocks of gulls, Hitchcock’s film crew went to the San Francisco City Dump. They raked spoiled food into large piles and spent three days shooting more than 20,000 feet of film–gulls diving into the garbage piles.

 

Papier mache birds were wired into place. Below are two photos of the same school: the film set of the school and playground, with fake birds wired into place.

Bodega Bay school film set with fake birds, 1962. Photo courtesy Footsteps in the Fog.

And here’s the same school today. Redwood trees (on the left) have grown up where the playground was. It’s one of the only still-existing buildings from the film.

“The Birds” schoolhouse, aka Potter School, Bodega, California. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

One of the reasons Hitchcock chose Bodega Bay for this bird film was it’s open sky and water. He accentuated the nature vs. man theme with a sky filled with screeching, menacing birds.

 

But this is the most adverse avian activity I ever saw in Bodega Bay: three gulls fighting over fish scraps that a fisherman had just thrown in.

Gulls tugging on fish scraps, Bodega Bay, California

 

I appreciate the ingenuity of The Master of Suspense, and I am a big Hitchcock fan.

 

But oh how sanguine that this small fishing town with its open sky and sparkling bay is, in real life, a gentle place where migrating birds spend a mild and quiet winter.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Black and white photos from “Footsteps in the Fog,” 2002, by Jeff Kraft and Aaron Leventhal.

Great Egret fishing at Bodega Bay

 

The Common Warthog

Common Warthog, Botswana

Warthog pair, Zambia

Warthogs are tough little animals…they have to be in the African savannah. The sun is unrelenting, food can be scarce, and the much-bigger megafauna live a brutal existence.

 

When I saw my first wild warthog, on a trip some years back, I was struck by its most unusual looks.

 

That short and stout body with a really big head. The curved tusks protruding from a flat face. Face bumps and whatever else all hidden by whiskers and bristles.

 

The bumps or warts, for which the animal gets its name, are tough, thickened skin that protect the warthog.

 

Every warthog has four tusks, to defend against their many predators including leopards, lions, crocodiles, hyenas, and humans.

 

Leopard, Botswana

 

Lion, Botswana

 

When you spend enough days out in the field, you see warthogs quite often. I found them curious and enjoyable to watch.

 

Warthog, Botswana. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

They have a compact, swift way of moving, often with the tufted tail extended straight up in the air.

 

Warthog, Zambia. Photo: Athena Alexandra.

 

Sometimes they were barely visible in the tall grass.

Warthog, Botswana

 

While grazing, they are frequently seen kneeling; have callused knee pads for this purpose.

Kneeling Warthog, far left, Botswana

 

Often they were in groups, called sounders. They have an elaborate social system with family groups of females and their young. Males typically separate from the families, but stay in the home range.

 

During the day we saw them in the grass foraging, socializing, and raising their young. At night they bed down in abandoned aardvark burrows.

 

The burrow is also where they nurse their piglets. The piglets are tiny, weighing a pound or two (450-900g).

 

Because the warthog has neither hide nor fur for protection or insulation, they stay warm by huddling together or staying in their burrows.

 

When it is hot, warthogs roll around in mud holes and coat their bodies with a protective layer of mud.

Warthogs in mud, Botswana

 

Muddy Warthogs, Botswana

 

They have a large and varied diet, eating grasses in the wet season, and digging for tubers, rhizomes, and roots during the dry season. But they will eat anything from bark and fungi to insects, eggs, and carrion. Survivors.

 

Although warthogs can sprint up to 30 mph (48 km/h), they are slower with less endurance than most savannah animals. So the burrows are essential for survival.

 

Adults back into the burrow tail first, so they can come charging out, tusks first,  if threatened.

 

One day we were on a walking safari.  Our guide, always armed with a rifle, warned us never to stand in front of a burrow because an aggressive warthog could come charging out any time.

Botswana safari, Jet behind Guide Brett

 

We were passing by a burrow, quickly, as instructed, but just then there was a tremendous screeching and uproar and I thought for sure we were about to be attacked by a warthog.

 

It was only a ground bird we had startled.

 

Often over-shadowed on the savannah by more elegant mammals, warthogs may not be showy specimen, but they are crafty survivors.

 

They can outsmart their predators, defend their young, stay fed in any season, and live among some of the most ferocious creatures on this planet. That’s an impressive animal.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Warthog, Botswana. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

Distribution P. africanus.svg

Range Map, Common Warthog. Green=distribution; Brown=possible range or accidental records. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Wildlife in Yellowstone and the Tetons

Pronghorn and bison, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

Moose cow, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

 

Elk cow, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

In the northwest corner of Wyoming in the American West is a large complex of parkland which includes both Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park.

 

The two parks and surrounding forest and mountains comprise a large outdoor complex: the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

 

We were on a two-week road trip from California to Wyoming in early September, 2014.

Bison, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone River, Yellowstone NP

We saw over one hundred wild bison in our first five minutes in Yellowstone, and would continue to see large herds throughout the visit. They are the featured star of Yellowstone–have free range to roam wherever they want within park boundaries.

 

It is a miraculous success story that there are any bison today. North America’s American bison populations have fluctuated dramatically from over 60 million in the late 18th century, to only 541 individuals by 1889.

 

Reintroduction efforts were successful and today there are approximately 31,000 bison on the continent, with 5,000 in Yellowstone.

 

Bison were by far the most prevalent megafauna we saw in Yellowstone.

American Bison, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

A good close-up opportunity often occurred when a bison decided to cross the road, stopping traffic, sometimes for miles. Sometimes they sauntered so close to the car that we could hear their breathing.

Bison Bull, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

Bison crossing road, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

Large herds were frequently seen in the distance.

Bison herd, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone NP

 

Other megafauna were not easy to find. We searched for days before we found one moose, in the distance (two photos, the same individual). There were so many people in the park, the mammals stayed as far away as possible.

Moose cow, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

One day we had a picnic at Jackson Lake, and new friends quietly joined us.

Jackson Lake and Tetons, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

Least Chipmunk, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

 

Beetle, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

Hairy Woodpecker, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

 

We sat across from these giant beaver lodges, hoping to see beavers. No beavers revealed themselves, but we spotted trumpeter swans in the distance, a bird lifer (never before seen) for us.

Beaver Lodges at Jackson Lake, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

On the way to see Old Faithful early one morning, we had a closer view of trumpeter swans.

Trumpeter Swan, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

Here’s Old Faithful…so magnificent.

Old Faithful, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

Some nights we heard coyotes howling, oh how I love that.

 

A flock of mountain bluebirds were busy at an abandoned homestead we found.

Mountain Bluebird, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

 

Another spectacular attraction unique to Yellowstone are the geothermal features; there are over 10,000. We spent many hours marveling at the geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles.

Morning Glory Pool, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

This American dipper was busy feeding beside the river, not far from thermal features.

American Dipper, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

One day we ventured far out on gravel roads, on our own safari drive. I drove while Athena stood up and photographed from the sun roof. Using the car as a blind was the only way we could sneak up on skittish pronghorn.

Pronghorn antelope, Yellowstone NP, Montana

We also came upon magpies in a meadow.

Black-billed Magpie, Yellowstone NP, Montana

 

America’s first national park, Yellowstone hosted Native Americans 11,000 years ago and continues embracing park enthusiasts today with its vast open space, mountains and grasslands, rivers and waterfalls.

 

You could spend a lifetime exploring this area and still never know all of what’s here, but I’m grateful I had a good start.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Great Spangled Fritillary (female), Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

Elk cow grazing in Mammoth Village, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

The Seaplane Flight

Seattle’s Puget Sound Waterfront. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

Seaplane landing, Lake Union, Seattle, WA

One summer day six years ago, we had a wonderful adventure on a seaplane. We took off from Lake Union in Seattle, Washington, and landed 45 minutes later in Victoria, Canada.

 

(The fires here in Wine Country rage on, though there is 35% containment, so I am continuing with the water theme started last week. Boat Rides.)

 

There was a free shuttle that transported us from Seattle’s International Airport to Lake Union, and we had arrived early. A small airport, Kenmore Air was the most relaxing and picturesque U.S. airport I had ever been to.

 

There was plenty of time to sit around the docks watching the floatplanes land. I sat there trying to grasp how landing in water was going to work, while Athena took photos.

 

With passports and carry-on bags, we soon walked down the pier and climbed into the floating plane. Other than the two “floats” mounted under the fuselage, it looked like a regular Cessna airplane.

Lake Union pier at Kenmore Air, Seattle, WA

 

Besides Athena and myself, there were two other passengers, plus the captain and co-captain.

 

Seaplane Cockpit

 

Water takeoff was similar to an earth takeoff, but not as solid or defined…a combination of plane and boat takeoff.

 

We left Lake Union, a busy commercial and recreational boating hub in Seattle, and soon enjoyed a picturesque bird’s-eye view of Washington State’s largest city.

Lake Union, Seattle, WA

 

The plane’s two floats, which make water landings possible, add weight and therefore drag to the plane. This creates a slower rate of climb and cruise speed.

 

A slow climb and cruise speed resulted in a relaxing environment. The relatively low altitude offered fascinating views of the world below.

 

We flew over the San Juan Islands. There are 172 named islands, and several hundred smaller islands. Ferries and boats of all kinds cruise through this archipelago, from cargo ships to kayaks. It is a popular tourist destination. Map at end.

 

Aerial sailboat, from seaplane

 

Though we saw none of this from the sky that day, there are pods of orca whales, as well as humpbacks and minkes; and other wildlife, too, including the largest concentration of bald eagles in the contiguous U.S.

 

We saw that some islands were empty of people, while other islands were more established.

 

A few of the San Juan Islands, Washington State

 

Soon– too soon–it was time to land.

 

We were given an expansive aerial view of Victoria as we descended. Located on Canada’s Vancouver Island, the capital of British Columbia is a sizeable city, population 92,000.

 

Victoria Canada aerial photo from the seaplane

 

The sparkling harbor came closer and closer.

 

When we came to the moment of landing, I was pleasantly surprised…even delighted. Because I finally got to know what it must feel like to be a duck.

 

We landed just like a duck does, with it’s webbed feet extended for landing while the rest of the upper body slowly and seamlessly eased gently onto the water’s surface.

 

In my mind…I quacked with joy.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Water Taxi, Victoria’s Inner Harbour and B.C. Parliament Bldgs. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

Empress Hotel, Victoria’s Inner Harbour, Canada

 

The San Juan Islands. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Boat Rides

San Francisco ferry docks, Embarcadero

This week we’re experiencing wildfires in my county and adjacent counties in Northern California. This time, the fire skipped over us.

 

Those in my community who have not been evacuated have watery eyes and sore throats from the intense smoke, and breathing is a struggle. The sun is coppery from the toxic pall, and ashes have been falling for days. Our brave firefighters keep going.

 

I’m locked in, mending broken bones and staying distanced in a pandemic; so let’s do that virtual thing and focus on boat rides and the freshness of clean, moving air and abundant water.

 

The San Francisco Bay offers many opportunities to climb aboard. One day two years ago we took a birding charter on a winter day.

 

It was during the bird migration, so we saw loads of birds and sea lions, too.

Gulls and Sailboat, San Francisco Bay, California

 

A raft of sea lions, San Francisco Bay

 

Sailboats and Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA

 

You can take a boat to Alcatraz.

Alcatraz Island

 

Or hop on a commuter ferry across the Bay. These days, masks and social distancing are required.

Ferry boat, The San Francisco. Athena on the top deck in 2018.

 

In 2018 and 2019 we enjoyed Fourth of July fireworks cruises on the San Francisco Bay. Hopefully next year that will be happening again.

San Francisco Bay, 07.04.18

 

While birding, we often take boats to small islands. This was a boat we took in the West Indies with the goal of seeing tropicbirds…which we found.

Boat guide and captain, headed for Little Tobago Island in the West Indies

 

Red-billed Tropicbird, Little Tobago Island, West Indies

 

River boating is also fun for birding. Some years ago, our guide Armando and his captain friend took us on this wooden outboard motorboat in Mexico.

Armando and the boatman, Mexico. Photo: Athena Alexandra.

 

I always put my hand in the water when I’m in a low-lying boat, I like to feel the temperature of the water. But not on our pontoon boat ride through the Okefenokee Swamp.

Alligator and Spanish Moss, Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia.

 

Last summer we signed up for a half-day trip on this paddle-wheeler riverboat. We were curious to know what being on the Columbia River was like. It was super windy and a blast in every way.

Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler, Oregon

 

Here’s a live-aboard I was on for a week, years ago, visiting the Galapagos Islands. The Diamante. We slept on the boat at night and hiked different islands during the day.

Galapagos Islands, our living quarters for a week. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

Fishing and small boats are a livelihood for many.

Zambia, Africa. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

Fishing boats, Lake Baringo, Kenya, Africa. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

The Sydney Harbor has a lively array of boats coming and going all day and night. We caught a ferry to the Taronga Zoo, and had an exhilarating time observing the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and local sail boats.

Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

Motorized canoes on an Amazon tributary–they move just fast enough to keep the mosquitoes from biting.

Athena and I are on this boat. Photo: Bill Page.

 

We’re lucky to have water and boats all over this planet, and someday soon our Bay Area fires will stop, the air will clear, and I’ll be back onboard another great vessel. Thanks for joining me, matey.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Most photos by Athena Alexander.

Jet. It’s always fun to go under the GG Bridge. Photo: Athena Alexander.