Unusual Birds for Unusual Times

Male Frigatebird in breeding, Seymour Island, Galapagos

During this homebound time, here are some of my favorite unusual-looking birds from around the world.

 

There are so many lovely creatures in this world, each one unique in its own way. But some are especially different-looking; for today I narrowed it down to 12 birds.

 

Bird #1. Male Frigatebird in breeding (above). We worked and saved for two years to see this sight. This exquisite seabird comes to land only to breed, we were determined to observe his remarkable display; journeyed to a remote island in the Galapagos.

 

The male’s pouch inflates and deflates. He spends a lot of energy to inflate his red gular (throat) pouch to attract females. Once it is inflated, he pounds on the balloon-like body part with his wings; makes booming sounds and vocalizations.

 

After the male has found his damsel, the pouch deflates and the business of preparing for the new chick begins.

 

Bird #2. Nothern Potoo. A nocturnal bird, they perch on the end of sticks, flying out to catch insects and returning to their perch.  Nyctibius jamaicensis blends into the perch, rendering it nearly impossible to spot.

 

Our guide took us in a small motorboat to a Mexican marsh.

Northern Potoo, Mexico

 

There are over 300 different hummingbird species in the world. Many of us have seen hummingbirds or photos of them, yet I found the two following hummingbirds particularly unique-looking.

 

Bird #3. Tufted Coquette. With that punk orange hairstyle, polka-dotted wings and iridescence, its not like any hummingbird I’ve ever seen…and I’ve seen a lot. We spotted him deep in a Trinidad rainforest.

Tufted coquette, male, Trinidad

 

Bird #4. Another memorable hummingbird is the snowcap. Microchera albocoronata is in a genus all its own. They are tiny birds, the male is reddish purple with a bright white cap. Even beneath the dark canopy of the Costa Rican rainforest, that snowy white cap could be spotted fairly easily.

Snowcap Hummingbird, Costa Rica

 

Bird #5. The Resplendent Quetzal. The male has long tail streamers, and the female has the same exquisite colors as the male, sans tail streamers. They eat avocadoes, so a guide took us to a wild avocado grove in the Chiriquí Highlands of Costa Rica.

 

Avocadoes that are not bred for human consumption are small, apricot-sized. These gorgeous birds were elegantly shimmering and fluttering from one tree to the next. They were not-so-elegantly eating: swallowing the avocado whole, then spitting out the pit. I vote this the most beautiful bird I have ever seen.

Resplendent Quetzal, male, Costa Rica

 

Bird #6. Cock-of-the-Rock. One of the strangest birds I have ever seen. We waited in the morning dark, in an Andes lek where males gather to perform courtship dances for the female. This bright orange male struts, bobs and hops while vocalizing a cacophony of staccato sounds. That morning there were five or six males vying for one female; she flew off solo after the show.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Peru. Photo: B. Page

 

Before we leave the western hemisphere, I want to show you a lovable strange bird who inhabits the deserts in southwestern and south-central United States. We saw it in southern California.

 

Bird #7. The Roadrunner. Clocked at 20 miles an hour (32 km/h), this bird is speedy. This creature was the star and namesake of the old Warner Brothers cartoons, the Road Runner Show. There’s a reason Wile E. Coyote never caught the roadrunner….

Roadrunner, California. Photo: Athena Alexander

Sporting a long tail and perky crest, Geococcyx californianus hunts lizards and snakes. You see them sprinting more than flying, though they can fly.

 

The other side of the world is also loaded with unusual-looking birds. Here are a few we found in Africa and Australia.

 

Bird #8. The hamerkop is a wading bird, found in Africa, and is most closely related to pelicans. The color is unremarkable brown, but the shape of the head is highly conspicuous, appearing to look like a hammer. Its name means “hammerhead” in Afrikaans.

Hamerkop, Zambia, Africa

 

Bird #9. The secretary bird is a long-legged raptor. The lower half of the legs are featherless, the crest has quill-like feathers.  Sagittarius serpentarius stomps prey with its muscular legs, and uses the large, hooked eagle-like bill to strike.

Secretary Bird, Africa. Photo Athena Alexander

 

Bird #10. Far less ferocious are the African hornbills. There are several species of hornbills, this one is the red-billed. Their conspicuous bill gives them a distinguished, albeit odd, appearance.

Red-billed Hornbill pair, Zambia

 

Bird #11. Vulturine Guineafowl in Africa. In a land of vast savannahs, guineafowl are large, gregarious birds who eat insects and seeds in the grasses. You often see large flocks of them pecking the ground, like chickens. The Vulturine species, Acryllium vulturinum, has elegant markings.

Vulturine Guineafowl, Kenya, Africa

 

Bird #12. By far the oddest bird of all, the Southern Cassowary has a large casque atop its head, large bristly black body, long legs and neck, bright colors, and two dangling red wattles at the throat. We were birding deep in the rainforest in Queensland with a guide when we unknowingly came close to a cassowary’s nest. We had accidentally agitated the male.

Southern Cassowary, Australia

As big as humans, a cassowary has a large spike on its foot and can land a fatal blow to anyone in his way. We didn’t have long to chat with him.

 

Of course there are many more unusual birds in this world, as well as insects, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals.

 

As we all go through this unusual mammalian pandemic, try to remember that the world is full of odd animals.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Two Runners-Up:

Crested Guans, Costa Rica

 

Emu, Mareeba Wetlands, Australia

 

Jet (L) and Athena on Galapagos. Trees with breeding frigatebird colony in background.

 

 

Hubble Space Telescope

Stephan’s Quintet, interacting galaxies. Courtesy Hubble.

When life on earth gets impossibly complicated, I often look to the skies for solace. On clear nights, I have a galaxy of stars above to embrace me. At other times, it’s Hubble’s photographs.

 

The Hubble Space Telescope (“Hubble”)  is situated above Earth’s atmosphere–340 miles (540 km) up. At this altitude, it is able to avoid the atmospheric distortion that terrestrial-bound telescopes and observatories encounter, resulting in pristine images.

 

Pillars of Creation, interstellar gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula. Courtesy Hubble.

 

The information gathered from Hubble’s 30 years of images have led to breakthroughs in astrophysics.

 

With a very large mirror (see photo at end) and four main instruments, Hubble can observe in ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

 

“If your eye were as sensitive as Hubble’s, you could look from New York City and see the glow of a pair of fireflies in Tokyo.”

(Hubble’s Universe, Greatest Discoveries and Latest Images [2014] by Terence Dickinson.)

 

Hubble Space Telescope in space being serviced by Astronauts Smith and Grunsfeld (center), Dec. 1999. Courtesy NASA.

 

The only telescope designed to be maintained in space by astronauts, Hubble was launched into space in 1990. Since then it has been serviced, repaired and upgraded by NASA space shuttle missions in 1993, 1997, 1999, 2002, and 2009.

NASA:  Hubble Servicing Missions

 

Inside the Orion Nebula. Courtesy Hubble.

 

Due to these upgrades, Hubble is equipped with cutting-edge mirrors, computers and navigational equipment. It remains in space to this day, fully functioning.

 

Multi-layered insulation on the outside protects it from the harsh environment of space. Large solar panels turn the sun’s light into usable energy.

 

The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit

Hubble Space Telescope in orbit. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Over the years, space shuttle missions to Hubble have been cancelled and re-scheduled due to funding and safety issues.

 

The fifth and final upgrade mission was serviced by the space shuttle Atlantis crew in 2009. Upgrades and servicing are over now, but Hubble could last until 2030-2040.

 

This is the Atlantis shuttle craft, below, now displayed in Kennedy Space Center.

 

Atlantis Space Shuttle on display at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida

 

Engineering support for Hubble is provided by NASA and personnel at Goddard Flight Center in Maryland. Four teams of flight controllers monitor Hubble 24 hours a day.

 

Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is currently being developed by NASA with significant contributions from European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency.

 

NASA is generous with sharing data and Hubble images, and also provides numerous websites for anyone to visit, here are a few:

Online brochure:  Highlights of Hubble’s Explorations of the Universe.

NASA Website:  Hubble Space Telescope

This NASA link invites you to enter your birthday to see the photo Hubble took on your birthday. What Did Hubble See on Your Birthday.

Wikipedia Hubble Space Telescope

 

Crab Nebula. Courtesy Hubble.

 

Horsehead Nebula. Courtesy Hubble.

 

Carina Nebula. Courtesy Hubble.

 

 

Jupiter. Courtesy Hubble.

 

The triumphs and discoveries gleaned from Hubble are a testament to the profound abilities of humans from all over the world.

 

While we work on sorting through problems on our planet, we have the skies and space to dazzle our imagination, and open the universe to future generations.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Hubble photos courtesy NASA.

Atlantis Space Shuttle photo by Athena Alexander.

Hubble’s primary mirror measuring 7.9 feet (2.4 m), March 1979. Courtesy Wikipedia

Whirlpool Galaxy. Courtesy Hubble.

 

Peace

Halloween Pennant Dragonfly, Horicon Marsh, Wisc.

Whether it’s a pandemic, disaster, or personal devastation, there are times in all our lives when a few moments of peace can bring us into balance. Here are a few reminders of the sweetness of life on earth, I hope they bring you peace.

 

No matter what is unfolding in these weeks of chaos and fear, a few hopeful signs of spring can be so uplifting.

Lambs, California

Carrizo Plains, California

 

Or a special gift of light, usually lasting only a second, that spotlights a wild creature just perfectly.

 

These two photos below are the same species: male Anna’s Hummingbird. One moment his gorget can be mostly black…

Anna’s hummingbird (male), California

 

…and with a turn of the bird’s head and just the right light, the gorget becomes iridescent hot pink. How incredible is that?

Anna’s Hummingbird, California.

 

I love it when light shines through a jackrabbit’s long ears. The ears look brown and furry, and then the rabbit hops into the sun and suddenly you can see each vein.

Jackrabbit, Northern California

 

Sometimes we have natural audio gifts to enhance the moment, like when you are so close to a bird gliding by that you can hear the wind in its wings.

Brown Pelican, California

 

Place can give us peace too. Sometime it’s the complete familiarity of a place that lifts our spirit.  Like knowing a place so well, you know where to go to find the wildflowers.

Shooting Stars, Dodecathion, one mile from home, Calif.

 

Or the comfort of simply knowing a bird species your whole life. I’ve probably seen a million American robins in my lifetime. It is solid, soothing information that no matter how disorienting the times are, the robin is still the robin.

American Robin eating toyon berry, Calif.

 

Old redwoods give me the comfort of feeling young.

Athena with one old redwood tree

 

A creature popping their head out of the ground always gives me a smile.

Western Toad in burrow, California

 

Sometimes magic comes in seeing a wild creature that you never knew existed…

Bigfin Reef Squid, Monterey Bay Aquarium

 

… or finding characters that are marvelously strange.

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

 

I love to be out on a hike when I come upon a wild mammal just doing their own thing. We came upon this cow moose who was chomping down a grassy meal…

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, Moose

 

… and this cow elk, quietly grazing.

Elk in Yellowstone

 

We have these moments in nature because, as humans, we are part of nature. Fortunately, our sweet memories can carry us through the challenging times, remind us how wonderful life can be.

 

Be well, my friends.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexandra.

Black-necked Stilts, Northern California

 

Lava Land, the Big Island

Saddle Road, Big Island, vast landscapes of lava

 

Punalu’u Beach, Black sand beach from lava

The Hawaiian Islands are like no other place in the world. While there are many tropical attractions for vacationers including beaches, palm trees, and balmy fragrant air, it is the volcanoes that lend a unique aspect to these picturesque islands.

Lava beach

 

Here in the northern Pacific Ocean, there is a volcanic hotspot where magma from below the surface wells up. Movement over this magma hotspot by the largest tectonic plate on Earth, the Pacific Plate, creates the volcanic activity. This is what created the islands.

 

The eruptions have been occurring for millions of years, and still do to this day.

 

Crab, Big Island

 

All of the Hawaiian Islands show evidence of lava flows, but there is no island more active today with volcanic lava flows than the Big Island. It is on the far east end of the archipelago, and is the youngest island, and therefore has the most activity.

 

All photos posted here are from the Big Island.

 

Big Island, wall made of black lava rocks

 

Evolution of Hawaiian Volcanos

 

Visitors to the Big Island can see steam vents, craters, lava tubes, and vast landscapes of hardened lava.

 

Thurston Lava Tube, Big Island

 

I have visited the Big Island seven times since 1996. What I find most extraordinary is that the land, especially near Kilauea Volcano in Volcanoes National Park, is constantly changing shape due to the volcano activity.

 

Roads we drove on and trails we hiked in the 1990s have been swallowed up by lava flows, gone now.

 

These two photos taken at Kilauea as recently as 2016 reflect a landscape that no longer exists, due to the massive eruption in May of 2018.

 

Close-up, Halema’uma’u Crater at Kilauea Volcano

 

Halema’uma’u Crater, Kilauea overlook in 2016

 

Take a look at this video with shocking aerial footage of the lava flows during the May, 2018 eruption. 2018 Eruption of Kilauea.

 

This photo shows folks watching a Kilauea eruption in 1924.

 

Photo of Kilauea Halema’uma’u Crater in 1924. Big Island, HI.

 

The National Park Service has a website that is constantly updated for people who are planning a visit to the Big Island, supplying information on the most current eruptions, conditions, and road closures.

 

Big Island Hawaii Volcanoes

Big Island Hawaii Volcanoes. Courtesy explore-the-big-island.com.

 

But it’s not just around Kilauea where you see the lava activity. Evidence of lava flows new and old can be seen on the Big Island wherever you go.

 

Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, aka The Place of Refuge, is located on the west coast of the Big Island. Until the early 19th century, this 420 acre (1.7 sq. km.) site was a designated place of refuge for Hawaiians who had broken the law.

 

Walls of this ancient site, built centuries ago, were built with lava rock.

 

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, Place of Refuge, Hawaii

 

Place of Refuge aka Pu’uhonua o Honaunau

 

The place where Captain James Cook was killed on February 14, 1779, shows his monument built on black lava rocks.

 

Cook monument, Kealakekua Bay, HI

 

Residents live around the lava, turtles hunt on it, birds and crabs traverse it.

 

Wherever you venture on the Big Island, black lava tells poignant stories of the numerous eruptions and the people who have embraced this magical, but volatile, land.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Green Sea Turtle on lava, Big Island

 

Leaping Wildlife

Green and Black Poison Dart Frog, Costa Rica

Let’s celebrate this weekend’s Leap Day by joining some of the Earth’s most talented leapers.

 

Wildlife leapers come in all shapes and sizes.

 

One of my favorite leapers is the impala. Prime prey for many of Africa’s large mammals, impala’s defense includes leaps. Look at those long, thin legs…what magic they can do.

 

Impala, Botswana

 

They have a leap so unique, it has it’s own word: stotting.

 

While running, they fly through the air, land on their forelegs, then kick up their hind legs, and land on all four again. It’s all so fast you don’t know what happened until it’s over. There are many theories for the purpose of this tactic, mainly defense (see link above). There’s a stotting photo at the end.

 

The Klipspringer is another leaping African antelope, lives on rocky cliffs. Their name comes from Afrikaans:  klip (“rock”) springer (“leaper”).

 

This klipspringer was about a mile above us on a rocky hillside, gracefully darting across a precipitous granite wall.

Klipspringer, Botswana, Africa

 

More leapers live across the world in Australia where hopping kangaroos are a classic sight. They hop with the aid of large, stretchy tendons in their hind legs; the tail is also an aid.

 

Grey Kangaroos, Australia

 

This wallaby was only as tall as my knee, and her hop was not very big. I think the joey in her pouch might’ve had something to do with that.

Mareeba Rock Wallaby, Australia

 

This kangaroo, on the other hand, was nearly as tall as me.

Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Australia

 

Once when I was on an Australian back road, a mob of large kangaroos came clomping by at great speed. There were about a half dozen of them, and what a cacophony with their long hind feet and tails slapping the ground.

 

They tried to change course when they saw our jeep, but they were moving at such high speed that even when they stopped hopping, their large, heavy bodies kept sliding.

 

And then there’s monkeys. They sail through the air, land on a tree limb, grab onto vines, and skillfully make their way through a forest. They use their tails, too.

 

If you have ever spent a night in a monkey’s world, you are familiar with the sounds of this mischievous mammal pouncing on the rooftop above you.

Blue Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Kenya, Africa

 

We had the fortune of watching these colobus monkeys effortlessly swinging through the trees.

Colobus Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Africa

 

Frogs jump. This crazy one landed on glass, affording a good view of their powerful jumping legs and suction-cup toe pads.

 

Spring Peeper, Frog, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

 

Many frogs can jump more than 20 times their body length.

 

We found this frog sleeping in the ladies’ room blinds, in Mareeba Australia. It was a hot day in the Fahrenheit hundreds and this opportunist found a cool spot…no jumping that day.

 

Frog in the ladies room, Australian Green Tree Frog, Ranoidea caerulea

 

These two colorful frogs are tiny–about the size of your thumb. With their petite size, they are far more difficult to spot than you would think, considering their loud colors.

Painted Reed Frog, Botswana, Africa

 

This tiny poison dart frog chose a soggy grass patch to hide in. For every step I took to see it, a cloud of mosquitoes poofed up. About 20 mosquito bites later, it landed on this more posable wood piece.

 

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, Costa Rica

 

Rabbits hop. We happened to startle this one while hiking in Nevada. We were in rattlesnake territory, so I was relieved it was only a rabbit that hopped out of the undergrowth.

Rabbit, Nevada.

 

Last summer I accidentally startled a large rattlesnake, and that’s when I did the hopping.

 

And where would we be without leaping lizards in our world?

 

Lizards have a long list of predators, so they have to be quick. Whether they are small…

 

Dwarf Gecko, Belize

or large…

Green Iguana, Belize. Photo: Athena Alexander

…they can vanish in an instant.

 

My favorite lizard, the basilisk, can be seen here demonstrating the muscular legs that lend them their leaping skills. They not only leap on land, they leap on water, too.

Basilisk Lizard, Belize

 

Not to be outdone by mammals, amphibians, or reptiles, some of our long-legged insects have incredible leaping abilities. Spiders, crickets, grasshoppers and katydids, to name a few.

 

Katydid, California

 

I live on a dry, chaparral mountain and hot summer days are great for watching grasshoppers. They leap so high I can’t even see where they go. It’s only when they land that I see them again. Their long legs catapult them into the air and their wings extend the leap into flight.

 

I’ve read that if humans could jump the way grasshoppers do, we would be able to easily leap the length of a football field.

 

Even though Leap Day only occurs once every four years, we have the pleasure of these leaping creatures every day on Earth. Makes me want to leap with joy.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander except for last photo.

Stotting black-face impala. Photo by Yathin sk, Namibia. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okefenokee’s Pitcher Plants

Alligator, Okefenokee Swamp

It had been about a half hour of boating along the Okefenokee Swamp’s main channel before we arrived at the pitcher plant area.

 

In that time, several alligators cruised by our boat searching for fish or snakes to devour, their menacing eyes regarding us with dead blankness.

Alligator and Spanish Moss, Okefenokee

 

Our guide was excited to show us the carnivorous plants. Later I would understand why, but for now it was eerie: hungry alligators half-hidden in black water, masses of thick moss hanging from every tree–and we were on our way to see flesh-eating plants.

 

Permanently saturated wetlands, like the Okefenokee, have acidic water; soil is typically low in nitrogen and nutrients. Carnivorous pitcher plants have adapted to obtain minerals and nutrition from the living beings they trap.

 

Pitcher plants, their rhizomes underwater, can be seen hidden in thickets of tall grasses. Look closely in the center of this photo.

 

 

Okefenokee Swamp, pitcher plants in center

 

You look at this elegant plant never thinking it has skeletons floating inside.

Pitcher Plant

 

There are two major pitcher plant families in the world: Nepenthaceae and Sarraceniacea. The genus Nepenthes, found in the Old World, has more than 170 species of pitcher plants; found in many parts of Asia and elsewhere.

 

The Sarraceniacea pitcher plants are found in the New World, and all are native to North America.

 

The plants use chemicals and/or physical properties to attract and ensnare prey. Their shapes, which vary among species, are also a key factor in trapping prey.

 

The various species are known to attract ants, termites, flies, beetles, moths, or butterflies. Some species attract spiders, and still other species extract nourishment from bat feces or forest floor detritus.

 

The Okefenokee species, the Hooded Pitcher Plant, attracts ants and a wide range of flying insects.

 

There are glands near the top of Sarracenia minor that produce sweet-smelling nectar. Insects are attracted to the scent.

 

In addition, the white spots on the back of the hood, areoles, are translucent, allowing light to enter into the pitcher. Insects are lured in by the sweet smell and the light. In springtime there is a flower, also an attractant.

 

Notice the white “windows” in this close-up.

Sarracenia minor, Okefenokee

 

Once inside, the insect is trapped by stiff, down-pointing hairs that do not allow exit. They slide down the pitcher’s narrow shape, and are caught in water at the base, where they drown.

 

Dissolved enzymes in the water eventually digest the insects. The plant absorbs the insects’ soft parts, and the skeletons remain.

 

The hood of this species also prevents the trapped insect from escaping, while keeping rainwater out of the pitcher’s enzymatic waters.

 

A meat-eating plant filled with skeletons…grows in swamp water…attracts, kills, and eats insects.

 

Oh, the endless marvel of nature.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

A Sarracenia rhizome. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Sarracenia minor range.png

Range of Sarracenia minor. Southeast U.S. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Cumberland Island

Cumberland Island Ferry Boat Dock, St. Marys, Georgia. Jet in blue shirt and hat.

Cumberland Island National Seashore is a small barrier island off the Atlantic Coast of Georgia. Taking the ferry and spending a day on the island offers a peaceful day trip and a pleasant hike.

 

Before we even boarded the ferry, wildlife were entertaining us. We noticed a group of fourth graders squealing at something under the dock, they had found about a dozen fiddler crabs in the low-tide mud.

 

Fiddler Crabs, St. Marys, Georgia

 

This roseate spoonbill was busy probing the mud, filtering crustaceans in its magnificent bill.

Roseate Spoonbill, St. Marys, Georgia

 

The ferry ride is about 45 minutes long and cruises past numerous islands and marshes.

 

The island is only 18 miles (29 km) long. The east side faces the ocean; while the west side faces saltwater marshes and rivers, the Cumberland Sound.

 

It has a long, peopleless beach where we watched several flocks of royal terns in their winter plumage.

Royal Tern pair, Cumberland Island

Georgia Coast overview

Ferry boat Info

Cumberland Island Wikipedia

Cumberland Sound from Cumberland Island

 

Cumberland Island is one of Georgia’s 14 major barrier islands–it is the largest. Fortunately for us, most of Georgia’s barrier islands are protected by state or federal governments.

 

Barrier islands are coastal landforms that have been formed by tides, waves, wind, sand and other elements. They protect the coastline by forming a barrier, thereby blocking ocean waves and wind from directly hitting the mainland. See graphic at end.

 

These islands, also known as the Golden Isles, are so named for the rich amber color of the marsh grasses.

 

While there are many popular tourist attractions on Georgia’s islands, what I like about Cumberland is that it’s refreshingly devoid of tourist facilities and commercialism. There are no stores or concessions here, no golf courses or gift shops, not even garbage cans. You eat and drink what you brought, and pack your garbage out.

 

The Park Service only allows 300 visitors a day. Most people come just for the day, but there is an inn (prohibitively expensive) and camping available.

 

The emphasis is on the wilderness and wildlife.

 

In addition to the barrier islands, Georgia’s coast is comprised of 400,000 acres (1,619 sq. km.) of saltwater marshes. Influenced continuously by the ocean’s tidal action, the marshes flood and drain constantly, bringing in microscopic organisms that enrich the water with oxygen.

 

Abundant fish, shellfish, plants, insects, and birds are attracted to these waters. Marsh grasses and the shallow waters provide cover for the wildlife.

Saltwater Marsh near Cumberland Island

 

There is also a maritime forest on Cumberland Island. It has live oak trees curiously stunted by salt air; they are thickly covered with Spanish moss. The area’s ubiquitous saw palmetto plants (in foreground) dominate the forest floor.

Maritime Forest, Cumberland Island

 

While in this unusual forest, we heard the crashing surf and soon found untouched dunes and the Atlantic.

Sand Dunes and Atlantic Ocean, Cumberland Island

 

Conservationists have been working for decades to protect this beach, successfully encouraging sea turtles to nest. Last year the National Park Service counted 885 sea turtle nests here. The majority of the nests belonged to the endangered loggerhead turtle.

 

This pristine beach has not always been protected. One of the most ferocious protectors of the loggerhead turtles is Carol Ruckdeschel, who has lived on Cumberland for decades. The book “Untamed” by Will Harlan outlines the many achievements Carol has made, often single-handedly, in protecting the turtles and other wildlife on Cumberland Island.

 

Horseshoe crab shells, one jellyfish, and several species of shorebirds dotted the beach. Coconuts, palm trunks and other washed-up detritus were covered with seaweed and barnacles.

Horseshoe crab shell, Cumberland Island

 

Winds were fierce, so we kept hiking.

Beach hikers, my sister and brother-in-law.

 

There are other attractions on the island, like the Dungeness Ruins, a fire-ravaged and abandoned estate with much human history, as well as feral horses.

Dungeness Ruins and feral horse

 

We did not have much time to linger on our mild winter day. The sun sets early in November, and there was only one departing afternoon ferry, it left at 4:45 pm. More ferries are offered in the summer.

 

After we boarded the ferry, the magic did not end. Those same fourth graders were on board, and when the squealing began, I went over to see what they had found this time. Dolphins.

 

Then one last parting gift: the setting sun.

 

As we cruised through the Golden Isles, we were surrounded by miles and miles of golden marsh grasses, lit up like only the sun can do.

Golden Isles, horizontal line through center of image is sunlit golden marsh grasses

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Coastal Landforms, Barrier Island on right. Courtesy Wikipedia.