My Favorite River

Elephants in Chobe River

Our California winter this year has been blessed with abundant rain. As I walked in my neighborhood park last week, I marveled at the numerous rivers and streams.

 

I pondered what my favorite river on earth was, thought about it all week.

 

Rivers traverse all the continents. Over the centuries, cities have been founded on rivers for their power. They support large populations, and carry heavy loads of people and products. Rivers are the basis for the growth of civilization.

 

I have known so many rivers. How could I pick just one? Could you?

 

One favorite at the top of my thoughts: the Chobe River in Botswana. A popular watering place for African game. We watched wild dogs celebrating a kill, elephants crossing, and hundreds of ungulates.

Wild Dogs, Chobe River Nat’l Park, Botswana

 

Chobe River, zebra crossing from Botswana into Namibia

 

Waterbuck, Chobe River, Botswana, Africa

 

Then there is the Zambezi, another favorite. It is immense, and one of its most spectacular features: Victoria Falls.

 

Victoria Falls, Africa

Zambezi River

Zambezi sunset

In Zambia, where the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers converge, we had many lively experiences as we waited for the ferry to cross the river.

Waiting for the ferry at the Zambezi River, Zambia

Zambezi River crossing, Kazungula Ferry

 

And the Luangwa River, a major tributary of the Zambezi, holds the largest concentration of hippos in the world. Native residents share the river with crocodiles and hippos.

 

Hippos and Fishermen, Luangwa River, Zambia

 

 

Folks who fish rivers can read the water like a book.

 

Across the world in South America is the Amazon; we spent a week on the Madre de Dios River, a tributary.

 

It was buggy and humid in Amazonia, almost uninhabitable. I treasured the time we spent cruising this river, for the cool breeze and mosquito relief; and the myriad of wildlife species.

Boarding the boats, Manu, Madre de Dios River

 

Amazon river (near top) and jungle, aerial photo

Red and Green Macaws extracting nutrients from the river wall (photo by B. Page)

I have many favorite rivers elsewhere, too. My home country has so many rich riverways. The Yellowstone River, a tributary of the Missouri, brings frigid waters tumbling down from the Rocky Mountains.

Yellowstone Falls

The Colorado River, the Snake, the Columbia…and many more that I have had the opportunity to behold.

Colorado River, CO

In California, my home state, the Sierra Mountains deliver our highly revered water every day. We talk in winter about the snowpack, and every time officials measure the snow levels it makes all the newspapers, because this is the year’s source of survival. Dozens of rivers transport this liquid gold to us.

Deer Creek, CA; in the Sierra Nevada mountains

Drought and fires haunt us, and we revel when it rains.

 

What about the river of my childhood, the Mississippi? I was born and raised in the Midwest, where the Mississippi is integral. I’ve had decades of adventures on this river’s numerous branches.

 

Horicon Marsh sunset, Wisconsin

 

Could the Mississippi be my favorite?

Mississippiriver-new-01.png

Mississippi River basin. Courtesy Wikipedia.

As I continued to ponder the earth’s rivers, I remembered my times on the Rhine, the Danube, the Thames, the Amstel, and more.

Amsterdam bridge

 

Australian rivers, where I saw the rare Papuan Frogmouth (bird) from a motorboat; and my first wild platypus.

Papuan Frogmouth, Daintree River, Australia

Platypus

As I walked in the park beneath the California oak trees, I heard rambunctious acorn woodpeckers conversing, and red-tailed hawks declaring their territories.

 

I love it that every day the river here is different depending on the light, time of day, precipitation.

 

It is here that I finally got the answer I was seeking. For today, my favorite river is this one…

 

…where my feet are planted, where my eyes take in the ever-glinting movement, and my spirit is calmed by the whispering waters.

Northern California neighborhood park

This funny little river, a stream, really. Quiet, perhaps unnoticed by some, it is a wealth of life and bliss.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise indicated.

Male Kudu, Chobe River, Botswana, Africa

 

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Wild Cats in Africa

Cheetah, Serengeti

One of the many thrills on an African safari is finding the cats. But like any element of nature, they are not predictable.

Leopards, Zambia

All species in the Felidae family differ somewhat, yet they have similarities as well. Most cats, for example, are solitary and territorial…except the lions who have prides with elaborate social lifestyles.

Serengeti Sunrise, lionness

 

All the felines are carnivores and mainly eat warm-blooded vertebrates. Small cats prey primarily on rodents, birds, and small mammals; while big cats prefer antelopes and other ungulates.

 

But when the opportunity arises, any size cat will hunt and kill whatever it wants.

 

Does this big daddy look like he cares about convention?

Lion

 

Although we often think of the big cats as frightening and formidable, the small cats are also fierce. No creature on the African savannah is soft and cuddly.

 

Wild Cat, Botswana — Ancestor to the Domestic House Cat

 

Cubs were cute, but never to be touched.

 

Lion cubs, Serengeti

 

Felidae Wikipedia

 

Lion at sunset

 

Some cats are nocturnal, others are diurnal. But at mid-day under the ruthless African sun, many of them rest in the shade.

 

Lioness, Ngorongoro Crater, Africa

We always found lions in the morning after they’d had a night of hunting. Often they were nursing cuts or gashes sustained in the night. Usually their bellies were noticeably full, and the cat was sleepy.

 

But we also found them alert and hunting at all times of the day.

 

Lioness, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

 

Lions, like most predators, prey on defenseless baby mammals.  One day we watched with trepidation as a just-born wildebeest calf wandered over to a lioness, thought she was its mother. Wildebeest are not too smart.

 

We watched for 20 minutes as this baby wildebeest pestered the lioness for nursing and care. The lioness, annoyed, repeatedly shirked the baby off.

 

Then eventually the lioness snapped at the wildebeest, chased it, scared it off. But she never once went after it to kill.

 

Lioness and wildebeest calf

 

Leopards, unlike many of the big cats, can usually be found in trees. A cat of great strength, leopards often kill their prey and cache them in trees. With their powerful jaws, they drag the carcass into a tree where they will guard and eat it for a few days.

 

Leopard in tree, Tanzania

But leopards weren’t always in the trees.

Leopard, Okavango Delta, Botswana

 

Cheetahs, the fastest land animal on earth, are usually found in tall grass, stalking.

Cheetahs hunting, Serengeti

They sneak up on their prey, get within sprinting range, and then streak off in dramatic pursuit.

Cheetah with Thompson Gazelle

But one day we came across a pair of cheetahs lazily enjoying the sun on top of this kopje (large rock).

Cheetah on kopje (boulder)

Night game drives often revealed a different world than in the day. But several of what I thought were cats, were not really cats at all.

 

Two cat-like mammals we encountered at night were the genet and civit. They are not, however, in the feline family; they are both in the Viverridae family, more closely related to mongoose.

Large-spotted Genet, Africa

African Civit

 

The cats’ stealth, beauty, and ferocious activities lend excitement to an African safari, but the unpredictability of these wild animals is equally as thrilling. It’s what makes you think at night as you doze off to a distant lion’s roar.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Lion cub with siblings, Botswana

Lioness, Botswana

 

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

 

They Run Like the Wind…Cheetah

Cheetah

There are many glorious sights on the Serengeti, but nothing is as exhilarating as watching a cheetah in pursuit of its prey.

 

The cheetah’s body is built for aerodynamic speed:  light bones, long, thin legs, short neck, enlarged heart, lungs, and nostrils, and more.  Clocked as the fastest land animal, they can reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour (112 kph). They can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in three seconds.

 

Acinonyx jubatus pursue many different kinds of prey, depending on where they live. The cheetahs featured here are residents of the Serengeti, and gazelles are their prey of choice.

Cheetah with Thomson’s Gazelle

 

Cheetah on kopje (boulder)

 

Wikipedia Cheetah

 

Cheetahs hunting, Serengeti

In hunting, cheetah use their sense of vision rather than smell. They possess a  concentrated band of nerve cells in the center of their eyes, enhancing the visual sharpness, like binoculars. Of all the felids, this visual band is the most concentrated and efficient in the cheetah.

 

Cheetah

 

The cat begins stalking within 330 to 980 feet (100-300m) of prey. They prefer some kind of earthly cover–trees or tall grass–giving them a chance to stay hidden and  unseen. If there is no cover, they slowly, patiently, and methodically inch closer. Their camouflage in the tall, golden grass is an asset.

 

When the prey is within reach, the cheetah starts galloping. If the herd has not yet become aware, the cheetah has won an extra moment.

 

Within seconds, the herd of gazelles bolts and scatters. At this point the cheetah sprints, never faltering, with an individual in its crosshairs.

 

Cheetah jaws on gazelle neck

 

You might think at this point, that the gazelle is going to lose, because the cheetah’s extraordinary swiftness and prowess are unmatchable.

 

With that lanky, light body stretched out completely, and limbs of pure muscle, the cheetah achieves moments of being airborne. Ears pressed back, face set in dogged determination…they run like the wind.

 

But this bodily expenditure is of great cost to a cheetah, and can only be achieved in short bursts.

 

A gazelle may not have the speed of a cheetah, but they are a swift and nimble creature. The gazelle being chased can turn sharply, running in a zig-zag line…something the cat cannot do at high speed.

 

If the gazelle can continue to run this jagged path for about a minute, the cat runs out of steam, slows down, and the chase is aborted.

 

Click here for a National Geographic slow motion video — Cheetah running at top speed

 

While I love watching the cheetah fly across the landscape in deadly pursuit, I must confess I am always relieved when the gazelle escapes.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander. All in Tanzania.

Cheetah

 

 

Monkeying Around

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

Monkeys  and humans are both primates — I think that’s why humans find monkeys so entertaining to watch. There are 260 species of monkeys currently living in the world, here are a few monkey species I have seen in the wild.

 

Wikipedia Monkey

 

Monkeys are generally divided into two major types: Old World and New World.

 

The Old World monkeys photographed here were seen in different parts of Africa. They are also found in Asia.

Olive Baboon, Tanzania

Baboons are one of the easier Old World monkeys to spot not only because of their larger size, but also because they travel in large troops. There were many instances when the safari vehicle rounded a corner to find a troop of 50 or 100 baboons walking their daily route.

Olive Baboon, Tanzania, Africa

Monkeys grooming one another is a frequent occurrence; it is one of my favorite monkey observations. Known as social grooming, it is done for health benefits as well as relationship bonding.

Savannah Baboons grooming, Botswana

 

Typical of monkeys, the vervet monkeys have extensive hierarchies and elaborate social behavior.

Vervet Monkey, Botswana

Vervets have been known to express 30 different alarm calls. They can readily be observed vocalizing warnings to their peers when a predator is nearby. Vervets take this vocalization to a higher level of intelligence by specifically saying which of their four predators is lurking.

 

Our guides could tell us what predator we were about to see based on the different vocalizations they recognized in the vervet monkeys’ alarm calls.

 

Native to Africa, black-and-white colobus monkeys are strikingly beautiful to see dancing among the treetops.

Colobus Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Africa

Blue monkeys, though they’re not really blue, mostly eat fruit and can be found in Central and East Africa.

Blue Monkey, Lake Manyara, Tanzania, Africa

 

Now let’s head to the Western Hemisphere. New World monkeys, found in Central and South America, include the capuchin and howler monkeys.

 

There are approximately ten different kinds of capuchin monkeys, sporting many different colors. They are considered the most intelligent of the New World monkeys. Energetic and lithe, they have been used as service animals to assist people challenged with spinal injuries.

Brown Capuchin Monkeys, Peru

 

Known for their eerie, howling calls, howler monkeys are considered to be the loudest land animal. It is one of my favorite sounds in the rainforest…except for my first time when I thought I was going to die.

Red Howler Monkeys, Peru

Here’s a You Tube video with a good howler recording. Click here. 

Red howler Monkeys, Manu, Peru. Photo by Bill Page

 

It is an expansive family of interesting beings, our fellow primates, the monkeys.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Blue Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Kenya, Africa

 

Curious George.png

Curious George

 

Lovable Lizards

Land Iguana, Isabela Isl., Galapagos

There are over 6,000 species of lizards on our planet, residing on all continents except Antarctica.  Here are some basic facts and photos of a few of my favorites.

 

One thing I love about lizards is their adaptability. Depending on the severity of danger, they can sacrifice their tail and grow a new one, change colors, and vanish in an instant.

Green Iguana, Costa Rica

Another thing I love is their solar power. Lizards are ectotherms, they require heat sources outside their body to function. Also known as cold-blooded (not technically accurate), lizards regulate their body temperature according to the sun.

 

Once in awhile I will find a lizard when the sun has been absent, like at dawn on a foggy day, and they are frozen in place. Immobile. I like this about lizards, too — their vulnerability. Of course, that’s not their favorite thing.

 

There are many remarkable features about lizards, read more here:

Lizard Wikipedia

 

Green Anole, Texas

 

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

With six thousand lizard species, there are thousands of variations. I have watched lizards run across water, eat algae under water, flare out their neck to twice its size, and hang upside down for days.

 

Some lizards change colors to attract mates, some change colors to escape detection (camouflage), and others are bright their whole life.

 

Hawaiian Gecko

 

Spiny-tailed Iguana pair, Belize

I live in a hot, dry climate in California. In the spring and summer we have three regular lizard species, each is a home-time favorite and much revered.

Western Fence Lizard, California

The western fence lizard is the most prevalent, we see them every day from May through October. The male does push-ups and displays a brilliant blue belly during breeding season.

Western Fence Lizard, California, gorging on nuptial ants

 

Plus, this lizard has an astonishing feature. They have a protein in their blood that kills the bacterium in the tick that causes Lyme’s Disease.

 

Ticks often feed on lizards’ blood, including the deer tick that carries Lyme’s Disease. When the deer tick feeds on the western fence lizard, the bacterium is killed. My chances of getting Lyme’s Disease are considerably less because of this  lizard.

 

We also have the alligator lizard, named for their resemblance to alligators. They are skittish and infrequent, but when they appear, it is a highlight of the day.

Northern Alligator Lizard, California

Our third reptile is the western skink. They are almost always hidden, their predator list is long. I’ve learned to recognize their sound when they rustle beneath leaves; so if I wait nearby, I sometimes see them.

 

Western skink, Calif.

 

Some lizards, like the skink, move like a snake. They have short legs and wiggle and slither. But most lizards are quadrupedal and move with an alternating gait. Another thing I love about lizards…watching them walk or run, a kind of reptilian sashay that says “attitude” to me.

Nile Monitor, Botswana

 

The marine iguana, the only underwater lizard in the world, lives on the Galapagos Islands. I’ve been snorkeling when they entered the water–that’s a strange thing, to be snorkeling with a large lizard. A true thrill. They sneeze out the sea salt when they return to land.

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

Lizards bask in the sun, leap through the air, let go of their tail if it’s in the jaws of a predator, and effortlessly change colors. I wouldn’t mind having all of these features, but since I cannot, I’m happy to watch…maybe I’ll learn something.

Written by Jet Eliot
Photos by Athena Alexander

 


Frill-necked lizard, Australia

 

Golden Tegu Lizard, Trinidad

 

Human-sized Birds

Southern Cassowary, Queensland, Australia

There are four bird species on the planet that are as tall as humans: the Ratites. They are all flightless.

 

Birds that are classified as ratites are so-named from the Latin ratis, for raft. A raft is a vessel that has no keel, and a ratite is a bird that has no keel. In bird anatomy, feather muscles attach to the keel or sternum (breastbone); and if there is no keel, the bird is flightless.

Emu, Mareeba Wetlands, Queensland

In an earlier era, there were more ratites on earth. Today there are these four tall species–ostrich, emu, cassowary, rhea–and New Zealand’s dwindling population of small ratites, the kiwis.

 

Ratite Wikipedia

Southern Cassowary adult with chicks, Queensland, Australia

They date back 56 million years, and look as prehistoric as they are–large round bodies on long legs, with long necks.

 

Ratites have two- or three-toed feet, often used for kicking, and lay very large eggs, the largest in the world. Omnivores, they prefer roots, seeds, and leaves; but will also eat insects or small animals if necessary. They have wings but do not fly, and instead run at very fast speeds.

Ostrich, male, East Africa

Ostrich. The largest and heaviest land bird in the world…and also the fastest. With strong legs, they can sprint up to 43 miles per hour (70 kph), and maintain a steady speed of 31 mph (50 kph).

 

They also have the largest eyes of any land invertebrate. With their excellent eyesight, nine foot height (2.8m), and sprinting abilities, ostriches have many ways to escape African predators.

Ostrich Pair, resting, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

We usually found them in the tall African grass in small groups of three and four. They disappeared quickly whenever our jeep approached, running with long strides.

 

Emus can only be found in Australia. They are the second-largest bird, after the ostrich, reaching up to 6.2 feet tall (1.9m). They were prominent in ancient Aboriginal mythology, and remain revered in Australia today as the national bird.

Australian Coat of Arms, emu on right

Emus at Mareeba Wetlands

One sizzling day on a remote preserve in Mareeba, Queensland, we were visited by a group of four emus. We were under shade, looking out at the dusty, deserted landscape when an emu soundlessly approached from around the corner. We remained still, waiting to see what would happen.

 

Then another one came along, and two more. They had their heads down, nibbling, walking around in search of food.

 

They stayed so long that eventually we moved on.

 

Cassowary.  Another Australian ratite, they can also be found in New Guinea, Indonesia, and a few nearby islands…but there are very few left in the world. This is the third tallest bird in the world, after ostrich and emu.

 

Southern Cassowary, male, Australia

While many of the cassowary features are similar to the aforementioned ratites, its unique head casque, made of keratin, is exclusive. They are also the most brightly colored of the four tall ratites, and most dangerous, known to kill humans with their blade-like foot claw.

 

Every Australian we talked to said they had never seen a cassowary and we wouldn’t either.

 

Not only did we see one, we saw several, and one experience was more than memorable, it was terrifying.

Daintree Cassowary Crossing

We were in the rainforest with our guide when a male cassowary approached us. For about one minute he was unperturbed. Then he started walking slowly around in a circle with stiff legs, sort of stomping. Our guide, in a calculated calm voice quietly said, “It’s time to leave.”

 

Although we backed up and gave the cassowary his space, the bird advanced. The guide whispered his instructions: do not turn your backs, do not run. So we continued backing up–Athena, the guide, and I. But the cassowary continued advancing.

 

Our guide quickly tried something else. He stood beside a large tree, forming a sort of shield; told us to continue backing up behind his shield. We backed ourselves out of the forest and waited for the guide. Ten long minutes later, the guide joined us.

 

We didn’t know it, but apparently we were near the cassowary’s hidden ground nest.

 

The rhea is the only tall ratite I have not seen. Grassland birds that look much like the ostrich and emu, rheas live in different parts of South America.

Greater rhea pair arp.jpg

Greater Rhea. Photo Adrian Pingstone. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

There might be a day when I see a rhea in the wild, and then I will have the privilege of saying I’ve seen all four human-sized ratites.

 

But I’m in no hurry for this, because I’ve had so many exhilarating ratite experiences…enough to last me a lifetime.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander, except rhea

Australian Emu