Blue-colored Friends

Ulysses Butterflies on Lantana, Australia. Photo: A. Alexander

If any of my friends in the Northern Hemisphere are feeling a little blue about the waning of summer, here is a panoply of blue wildlife to uplift your spirits.

 

Blue-gray Tanager, Peru

 

Blue-footed Booby, Galapagos. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Though there are many birds with blue, there are also insects and reptiles, and even a monkey.

 

Bluet Damselfly, Nevada. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Butterfly, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Western fence lizards have a bright blue belly.

Western Fence Lizard, California. Photo: A. Alexander

 

This skink we see in California has a dazzling tail.

 

Skink, California

 

The blue monkey. Not as blue as some of its fellow blue-named creatures, but a beauty nonetheless.

Blue Monkey, Lake Manyara, Tanzania, Africa

 

Birds this blue sometimes blend into the greenery; but I have spotted them from far across an opposite ridge…gasping from behind my binoculars, such stunning beauty.

 

Blue Dacnis, Peru. Photo by B. Page

 

We found these blue-headed parrots at a river bank in the Amazon. They were busy extracting minerals from the clay soil.

 

Blue-headed Parrots, Peru. Photo: A. Alexander

 

The color blue is a bit complicated when it comes to nature. Peacock feathers, for example, are actually pigmented brown, but their microscopic structure, through light reflection, expresses blues and greens.

 

Indian Peacock, Texas. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Birdnote.org explains it well:

“Unlike many other bird colors, blue is not a pigment but a color produced by the structure of the feathers. Tiny air pockets and melanin pigment crystals in each feather scatter blue light and absorb the other wavelengths. The even finer structure of the feather gathers the bouncing blue wavelengths together and directs them outward.”

 

I think the blue feathers on this Glossy Starling take scattering and bouncing blue wavelengths to a new high.

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Africa

 

I’ve noticed some birds sporting blue always seem to be bright, like these two tanager species…

 

Blue-necked Tanager, Peru

 

Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

… whereas other blue-pigmented birds can sometimes look gray or black, depending on the light.

Little Blue Heron, Belize

 

Mountain Bluebird, Wyoming

 

Great Blue Heron, Ding Darling, Florida

 

These blue-footed boobies are performing a mating dance. The blue pigmentation in their feet comes from carotenoids in their fresh fish diet. The bluer the feet, the more healthy the bird.

 

Blue-footed Boobies, Galapagos Islands. Photo: A. Alexander

 

A few more of my blue favorites.

Belted Kingfisher, California

 

Green Honeycreeper, male, Trinidad (called a Green Honeycreeper, but more like turquoise)

 

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

 

Turquoise Jay, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Southern Cassowary, Queensland, Australia. Photo: A. Alexander

 

How wonderful to have all these blues in the world–so much pigmentation or light or wavelengths or whatever…to celebrate.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

 

Western Bluebird, California

 

Galapagos Crabs

Galapagos Sally Lightfoot Crab

 

Sea Lions and boat, Galapagos

 

Galapagos Sally Lightfoot Crabs

 

With all the magnificent sights on the shores of the Galapagos Islands, crabs are not usually the first creature our eyes behold. But the Galapagos crabs, like other crab species, are fascinating.

 

The two species we saw most were the Sally Lightfoot and hermit crabs.

 

Sally Lightfoot Crabs are most prevalent, seen on beaches and rocks on all the islands. The legend is that they were named after a Caribbean dancer, for their agility.

 

They have great speed and are very difficult to capture, moving swiftly in four different directions. Charles Darwin jokingly wrote of them: “…perhaps because of their rapid reaction time, they appear to read the mind of their hunter.” 

 

Like other saltwater crabs, Grapsus grapsus are equipped with five pairs of legs, including a pair of pincers. The hard exoskeleton is an acquired feature.

 

When born, they hatch in the water. At that early point they are larvae and swim deeper into the waters, feeding on phytoplankton. They undergo a series of molts, each time adding more body segments and appendages, eventually developing into juveniles. They then swim to shore, and begin scavenging.

 

Juveniles are dark-colored, camouflaging in the lava rocks; they also stay in groups, for safety. As the young crab ages, each molt provides a harder and more colorful skeleton.

 

This photo captured both adult and juvenile crabs.

Sally Lightfoot Crabs. Juveniles are black, adults are bright-colored.

Like all of Earth’s scavengers, the crabs add enormously to our environment by keeping it clean and providing a healthy seaside ecosystem.

 

In addition, the Sally Lightfoot Crabs are known to eat ticks on marine iguanas.

 

Sally Lightfoot Crab with four Marine Iguanas

 

Sally Lightfoot Crab Wikipedia

 

Hermit crabs are another species you see on the Galapagos.

 

This species has evolutionarily adapted to their soft body by finding hard, discarded shells to live in.

 

This one, below, has chosen a sea snail shell for its protective body covering. The tip of the abdomen can clasp strongly onto the shell. When the crab outgrows its shell, it finds a new one.

 

Galapagos Hermit Crab

 

Hermit Crab Wikipedia

 

All crabs are especially vulnerable creatures. Predators from the water and land abound, including humans.

 

American Oystercatcher, Galapagos Islands. They can pry open crab shells with that powerful red bill.

 

For protection: the hard shell helps, they can surrender and regenerate a leg if necessary, and they quickly scamper, hiding in rocks and crevices. Their sideways motion is also an aid.

 

We don’t usually think about the locomotive ways of living creatures, but for most it is forwards and backwards. Crabs are different.

 

If you quietly stand still on the shoreline, you may have the opportunity to observe a crab skitter sideways. Watching this brilliant, bright creature effortlessly zip sideways is like watching a marine superhero.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Marine Iguana, Galapagos. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Point Reyes

Point Reyes, Tomales Point, Pacific Ocean side

 

Tule elks (male), Point Reyes

 

Pt. Reyes from Tomales Point Trail. McClure’s Beach.

 

About a two-hour drive north of San Francisco is an expansive park called Point Reyes. Geologically it is a large cape that extends off the Pacific coast. Technically it is Point Reyes National Seashore…locals call it Point Reyes.

 

It is an entire peninsula with ocean coastline, beaches, and dunes; rolling hills; forests; dairy ranches; hiking trails and more. The land area is 70,000 acres (283 sq. km). It is my favorite of all places to hike in Northern California.

 

Point Reyes Wikipedia

 

Point Reyes is home to 490 bird species, 40 species of land animals, and a dozen species of marine mammals. Pods of California gray whale migrate through here. Two resident mammal species nearly went extinct: tule elk and elephant seals.

 

A breeding colony of elephant seals can be seen from December through March.

 

Elephant Seals on the beach, Point Reyes near Chimney Rock

 

The coast is rocky and often foggy, typical of Northern California, and this peninsula juts ten miles into the ocean…so far that it is notorious for hundreds of shipwrecks.  See map below.

 

Sir Francis Drake’s ship is said to have hit damaging rocks here in 1579. The crew hauled The Golden Hinde up to the beach for repairs.

 

Centuries later, but in the same general vicinity, we came upon this tiny cemetery in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Experienced life-savers succumbed to treacherous waves while helping passengers of shipwrecked boats.

 

Life-saver Cemetery, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Today the Coast Guard cruises overhead, maintaining public safety.

 

Coast Guard helicopter at Point Reyes

 

On the craggy mountain ridges overlooking the Pacific Ocean, tule elk herds graze on protected land.

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Hikers share the trails with elk herds. Sometimes when the fog is very thick you can hear their impressive bugling without actually seeing an animal. The first time this happened I was nervous, didn’t like not knowing where they were. But now when I’m there I hope for it, I like the mystery.

 

Point Reyes Tule Elk

 

At this time of year, late summer, the grass has turned brittle and brown. Wild amaryllis flowers, common name “naked ladies,” can be seen clumped in the grass. They have a heady fragrance–sweet, like bubble gum.

 

Wild Amaryllis, aka Naked Ladies

 

While hiking along the grassy trails to Abbotts Lagoon, we came upon California quail, brush rabbits, and many sparrows.

Abbotts Lagoon, Point Reyes

 

California Quail (male) in lupine

 

Last summer’s visit yielded a coyote.

 

Coyote, Point Reyes, California

 

Every spring we find nesting swallows.

 

Barn Swallow nestlings, Point Reyes

 

One summer a few years ago, Athena and I decided to go out after dark in search of a rare owl known to live here, the spotted owl.

 

We knew the trail well enough that we walked without light. Our reasoning for walking in the pitch black dark–which in retrospect doesn’t seem quite so wise–was that we would come upon the owl and hear it, without it being frightened by us. Once we located its hoot, we could use the light to see it.

 

But as we tripped along the trail, we heard the unmistakable breathing of a big mammal…very near. When we switched on the light, we came face-to-face with a really big buck.

 

We were all three very startled.

 

We backed off, gave him some room, and he continued to graze. We never did hear or see the owl.

 

I could fill a book with the outdoor adventures we have had in our 30 years exploring Point Reyes. You may know that feeling: when you realize you have spent most of your life in a place…and loved every minute.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Header photo, also Point Reyes: Tomales Bay. You would never guess that below Tomales Bay lies the San Andreas Fault.

 

Point Reyes, California. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

North American Prairies

Prairie meadow with black-eyed Susan wildflowers, Wisconsin

Pronghorn, California

Bison, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

The prairies of North America, unique to the continent’s central region, have intrigued and enlightened residents for centuries. Born and raised in America’s prairies, I continue to take great pleasure in our grassland expanses.

 

The history of the continent’s grasslands has been interesting, you can read about it below in the two links. Today we are in the fortunate period of a resurgence of prairie restoration.

 

Carrizo Plains, California

 

Red-winged blackbird, Horicon Marsh, WI

 

With the experience of previous generations, we have discovered that natural ecosystems, like grasslands, provide profound balance and abundant sustainable activity.

 

Prairie Ecology and History

 

Prairie Wikipedia

 

The deep roots of the grasses absorb rain and nutrients, preventing erosion and run-off. The grassland absorption of nutrients and minerals creates rich soil and productive farming. The grasses and forbs also capture carbon, an important process with the current threat of global warming.

 

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

 

Not all prairies are the same; some are wet, some are dry. The grasses are not all the same, either: tall, short, or a mixture of the two, depending on precipitation.

 

Colorado

 

In addition to the Great Plains of North America in the center of the continent, there are also prairie habitats in several parts of the U.S. and southern Canada. See map below.

 

Savannah habitats can include shallow waterways like marshes or vernal pools; some have occasional buttes. Trees are typically rare, except for what might grow alongside rivers.

 

With the absence of trees and mountain formations, unobstructed gale-force winds are common.

 

If you’ve ever been in grassland regions, you know about the storms. Sometimes they are glorious. Purple-black clouds roil for hours until at last the skies ominously open, bringing rain that actually smells sweet. Dramatic lightning and booming thunder.

 

Sometimes, admittedly, it’s not so glorious…it’s terrifying. This is where tornadoes occur.

 

Impending Storm on the Pawnee Grasslands

 

Wildlife in the prairies are dependent on open expanses, grasses and forbs. Grazers like bison, pronghorn antelope, deer, and elk live here.

Pronghorn, male, California

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Insects here are grasshoppers, moths, beetles, and butterflies. Small mammals like rodents, reptiles, and prairie dogs occupy this habitat. Jackrabbits and coyote too.

 

Prairie Dog, Colorado

 

The vast open plains are also home to many bird species: raptors and burrowing owls, seed-eating birds, field birds like bobwhites and quail.

 

California Quail

In addition, large migrating bird populations pass through the continent’s grassland habitats.

 

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

 

One spring we went to a prairie preserve in Texas in search of the rare prairie chickens native to these grasslands. We were unable to find the prairie chickens, they are now extremely rare, but we were treated to many prairie sights.

Texas

Several male dickcissels, seed-eating songbirds who occupy the prairie grasses, made their way to the top of the grass to vie for female partners.

Prairie Dickcissel, Attwater Preserve, Texas

Many plains and prairies show a vibrant display of wildflowers every spring. With the huge expanse of wildflowers brings the pollinating bees.

Texas prairie wildflowers

Western Meadowlark, Carrizo Plains, California

 

We tend to visit oceans, coasts, mountains, or cities when we travel, and the Plains (the word means ordinary) are not attractive to many folks.

 

But I love the flat grasslands redolent with sweet-smelling grasses and fresh air. Skies are open, grass is golden. Bison and elk graze without concern, meadow birds rest on fence posts or disappear in the tall grass.

 

Thanks for joining me.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

For early American prairie experiences, read Willa Cather. 

 

Bison Bull, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

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North American Prairie Map. Courtesy rediscovertheprairie.org.

 

Bird Life in Africa

Red-billed Hornbill pair, Zambia

Like every continent on this planet, Africa’s weather and terrain are what define the bird populations. But Africa’s bird populations soar to the top of the continent list with the huge size of land area, big game and extensive wildlife, vast wilderness and undeveloped expanses.

 

Here are some of my favorites.

 

Lilac-breasted Roller, Botswana

 

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Botswana

 

Many bird species occupy the waterways of Africa.

 

The hamerkop is a medium-sized wading bird related to pelicans. They eat fish and amphibians, sometimes rodents and insects.

Hamerkop, Zambia

 

We watched this ambitious rufous-bellied heron struggle for over a quarter hour with a wiggly catfish. Seems impossible, given the size of the catfish, but eventually the heron swallowed it whole.

Rufous-belied Heron eating a catfish, Botswana

 

On sandy patches near the Chobe River, we came upon a flock of African Skimmers skimming the water for fish. Like all skimmer species, their lower mandible (bill) is longer than the upper mandible, enabling the bird to scoop up fish while flying.

African Skimmer, Botswana

 

Elsewhere in Botswana, the Okavango Delta is a swampy inland basin that is home to many species of water birds. Wading birds, with their typically long legs, could be seen everywhere.

Saddle-billed Stork, Okavango Delta. Photo by A. Alexander.

African Jacana

 

Flamingos are probably the most well-known long-legged wader. We found many colonies on lakes in Kenya and Tanzania. On different occasions, we watched a jackal and a hyena stalking and circling the flamingos…a good reason for this bird to stay in large, safe groups.

Flamingos, Tanzania

 

Kingfishers, a world-wide bird species always seen waterside, are in many parts of Africa. There are 18 species in Africa, here are two.

Giant Kingfisher, Botswana

Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Zambia

 

Another extensive aspect of Africa are the grasslands. The word “Serengeti” translates from the Maasai for “endless prairies.” Life here revolves around the grass.

 

Watching an ostrich run across the African grasslands is a supreme honor. They are the world’s largest bird and are prey to many hungry beasts, so their speed is paramount to survival. They run up to 45 miles (70 km) per hour.

Ostrich, male, Kenya. Photo by A. Alexander.

 

Other interesting grassland birds include the secretary bird and guineafowl.

Secretary Bird, Zambia

 

Vulturine Guineafowl, Kenya, Africa

 

Weaver birds build elaborate nests from the surrounding grass.

Weaver nest, Zambia

More about Weaver Nests in a previously written post.

 

In addition to water birds and grass birds, cohabitation between mammals and birds is fascinating. It is, after all, a land of extremes in terms of wildlife.

 

This goose and crocodile seem to have adopted the “live and let live” doctrine…at least for the moment.

Crocodile and Egyptian Goose, Zambia

 

Oxpecker birds, endemic to the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa, can often be found on the bodies of ungulates. They eat the ticks that annoyingly nestle into the mammals’ hide. Some sources say it is symbiotic, others say the birds are parasitic.

Oxpeckers on Sable Antelope, Botswana

 

This buffalo and oxpecker strike me as an unlikely pair.

African Buffalo with Oxpecker on the far left, Botswana. Photo by A. Alexander.

 

These cheeky cattle egrets were hitching a ride on hippos in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

Ngorongoro Crater, hippos and cattle egrets

 

Another constantly occurring phenomenon on the eat-or-be-eaten plains of Africa is the hierarchy of species that gather around a freshly killed animal. While lions, cheetahs, or hyenas are often thought of as the fierce predators, the birds inevitably line up for their share of the carcass too.

 

And with large prey come large predatory birds.

 

One day along the Chobe River we had the rare opportunity of observing a pack of wild dogs hunting. They killed an impala and celebrated around it for at least half an hour. After the dogs were satiated and had left, these vultures moved in. You can see how big they are next to the antelope.

Vultures with prey, Botswana

 

This group of birds came in after the wild cats had left, settled into what remained of a baby elephant.

Vultures and Storks on carcass, Botswana

 

In Africa, birds are not the harmless little fluttery creatures we see in the rest of the world…but then it takes a special creature to live in the wilds of Africa. Thanks for joining the birds and me on this incredible continent.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Southern Ground Hornbill, Zambia. Photo Athena Alexander.

 

Fireworks on the Bay

San Francisco Bay, 07.04.18

The American tradition of launching fireworks on Independence Day is a festive event on the San Francisco Bay. If we have a Fourth of July when the skies are clear it is especially spectacular, but the ubiquitous San Francisco fog is also enjoyable.

 

These are photos from the past two Julys: 2018 was clear, 2019 had fog.

 

San Francisco Bay, 07.04.18

 

Many of the surrounding cities also set off fireworks, like Oakland and Sausalito. Here you can see Sausalito’s fireworks in the background.

 

Fourth of July on San Francisco Bay, 07.04.18. Sausalito fireworks in the background.

 

San Francisco hosts two synchronized sets of fireworks, one near Pier 39 and the other from a barge in the Bay. With so many steep hills, there are many perches for watching the fireworks, restaurants, rooftops. Pier 39 is a party all day long. No pedestrians on the Golden Gate Bridge, however, after 9:00 p.m.

 

My favorite is taking a boat cruise on the Bay.

 

The fireworks begin at dark, approximately 9:30 p.m., so boats start cruising the Bay around sunset.

 

Sausalito Hills, California, 07.04.19

 

Sausalito Marina, California, 07.04.19

 

Whether it’s foggy or clear, it is always cold on the Bay. Locals know to dress in winter clothes. We wear our parkas to watch the explosive extravaganza, without a regret for the days of summery fireworks in shorts and flip-flops.

 

Blue and Gold Fourth of July Cruise, 07.04.19

 

As the sun inches lower, cruise boats and private vessels move to the center of the Bay and drop anchor; the excitement builds.

 

Sail boat on the SF Bay, 07.04.19

 

Police boats with red and blue lights circle the fireworks barge, to keep others at a safe distance.

 

The fireworks are always fantastic. State-of-the-art pyrotechnics, firing off in rapid succession.

 

The water reflects the colors for miles…the rockets’ red glare.

 

San Francisco Bay, 07.04.18

 

The fog reflects a massive glow.

 

Fog glow, SF Bay, 07.04.19

 

Whether it’s foggy or sunny, cold or dark, there’s never a bad time cruising on the San Francisco Bay.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

San Francisco Bay, 07.04.18

 

Summer Moments with a Butterfly

Anise Swallowtail Butterfly on fennel, Calif.

Of the 18,500 butterfly species worldwide, every species relies on a host plant to provide food for its larvae. Fennel is one of the host larval plants for the anise swallowtail butterfly, a common butterfly found along the western coast of North America.

 

Here in northern California we have a lot of wild fennel–found along freeways, in parks and yards, city parking lots and pavement cracks. This is great news for the anise swallowtail butterfly who depends on fennel to begin life. It’s great news for us, too; our summers are consistently decorated with this large butterfly.

 

Anise Swallowtail caterpillar, final instar, California

 

The host larval plant provides the food vitally necessary for the young caterpillar stages, or instars, of the butterfly. When they form wings and fly off, they seek primarily nectar thereafter, because they no longer have mouthparts for chewing.

 

Observing a butterfly’s four-stage life cycle is fascinating. Most of us know the general story: eggs, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), butterfly. We often share this miracle with the children in our lives. Butterfly – Wikipedia. 

 

Athena and I have watched the many stages of this butterfly in the fennel patch in our yard, brought guests young and old to see, too. Then one day last month we were elsewhere, on a trail overlooking the Pacific Ocean, when Athena spotted an adult female butterfly behaving oddly.

 

The adult was on fennel, for one thing, and not drinking nectar from a flower.

 

Pacific Coast, California

 

She took a few photos and in examining them later, discovered that the butterfly had deposited an egg on the fennel. (This species lays eggs singly.)

 

Here you can see the swallowtail’s curved rear end touching down on the fennel. The egg is microscopic, so you won’t see it here.

 

Anise Swallowtail ovi-positing

 

They start out as a tiny dot on the underside of a plant leaf. All alone it grows from an egg into several successive caterpillars; then forms an exclusive protective shelter around itself as it changes life forms yet again. Eventually it emerges with wings, waits for them to dry, and then flies away. Quite a remarkable feat.

 

Anise Swallowtail Chrysalis or Pupa

 

Last weekend we went down to our fennel patch to see if there was any Lepidoptera activity.

 

Our fennel patch

 

We found this one caterpillar, below. It is about the length of a staple. It is one of the first caterpillar instars. Two or three more times the ever-transforming being will eat voraciously until it splits its skin. A new skin will have formed underneath, and the caterpillar will crawl off in it.

 

Anise Swallowtail caterpillar, early instar

 

One day the adult will flutter by in all its majestic beauty.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.
All photos by Athena Alexander.

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Vladimir Nabokov Scientific Illustration: Butterfly Ovi-positing. Color Plate 60 from his book Fine Lines. His note to his wife: From Vladimir to Vera. Courtesy hyperallergic.com.