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.

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.

 

Kona Farmers Market

Kona Farmers Market, Big Island, Hawaii

Fruit Stand, Kona Farmers Market

Every farmers market expresses the soul of a community. A visit to the Kona Farmers Market is celebrated with tropical fruits, Hawaiian arts and crafts, and the ease of gentle people, warm air and sea breezes.

 

On the west coast of Hawaii’s Big Island is the town of Kailua-Kona. Most people just call it Kona. We visit Kona every few years, usually for a week in December to escape the winter weather and holiday chaos at home.

 

We always go birding and snorkeling, and visit the Kona Market. Every Kona visit is planned around when the Kona Market is open.

Pacific Ocean and palm trees from Alii Drive, Kona, Hawaii

An open air market, it is located on Alii Drive, a narrow street hugging the coastline. It is open every week, Wednesday through Sunday, 7 am – 4 pm.

 

A parking lot on Mondays and Tuesdays, the market comes alive all the other days with locals and tourists, fresh farm produce, art, and souvenirs.

 

We go early–less people and more peace–and hear the rhythmic cooing of zebra doves, accompanied by squawks and chirps of the ubiquitous mynas.

Common Myna, Hawaii

On one side of the market you see the volcano Hualalai in the distance. It is an active volcano, so there are no dwellings or vegetation, just old lava spills and the vast openness.

 

On the other side of the market, across the street, is the sea. Lapping waves, black lava rock covered with skittering black crabs, and palm trees. Sometimes there’s a cruise ship docked in the bay; always there are surfers, paddleboarders and Hawaiian outrigger canoeists.

 

This town, this bay, is where the annual Ironman Triathlon takes place every October.

 

Occasionally there will be a green sea turtle foraging on the rocks, oblivious to the traffic on Alii Drive.

Green Sea Turtle on lava, Big Island

 

This rock wall, below, separates the market parking lot from the pedestrian sidewalk. It’s made out of the Big Island’s most prevalent earthen substance: black lava rock.

Zebra doves and bougainvillea at the Kona Market

 

We walk to the market from our rental condo and wear backpacks, knowing we will buy a few Hawaiian togs at our favorite clothing tent…our summerwear. In December summer seems so far away; but  n o t  when you’ve landed in Kona.

Clothing stand at Kona Farmers Market

 

We also fill up our backpacks with fresh exotic fruits, enjoy them all week.  Papayas so ripe and tender that you can open them with a butter knife. Hawaiian apple-bananas, half the size of a grocery store banana and with a more mellow flavor. Pineapples, mangos, avocados, star fruits, rambutans, and many more.

 

Paintings and other fine, hand-crafted art are based on the Hawaiian themes of volcanoes, Polynesian history, the ocean and all the creatures who live in it. Kona coffee, guava jam, macadamia nuts, coconuts, and an array of touristy baubles are also for sale.

Kona Farmers Market

 

I spotted a gecko on a pole who enticed us into this flower stand. It teased us, displaying its exotic beauty but never sitting still long enough to be photographed.

Flower stand at the Kona Farmers Market

On a winter day in December, there is nothing quite so sublime as slowly walking through the tropical Kona Farmers Market.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Gold Dust Day Gecko, Hawaii

 

The Water Tray

Wild bobcat at the water tray, photographed by the outdoor camera

At this time of year, when it is extremely dry where I live in Northern California, the water tray is a popular outdoor wildlife attraction.

 

By the time we get to August, when there hasn’t been rainfall since April, streams are dried up, rivers are trickling, and lakes have significantly diminished in volume.

 

By providing a refreshing drink during the most parched season, we are inviting an ongoing parade of wild creatures.

 

It is a great thrill to be on the daily route of our wild friends.  On a hot summer afternoon, this coyote is headed toward the water tray. He has that determined look like we hikers get when we can hardly wait for a break-time sip.

 

Coyote, No. California, headed for the water tray

 

Frequent wildlife guests are excellent incentive to keep the trays clean and filled. We have two trays, move them around occasionally to make sure they are fully utilized. We place them where we can use the garden hose to fill them, so that it’ a quick task.

 

The water also makes an attractive bathing station for the birds, including this golden-crowned sparrow one spring day last April.

 

Golden-crowned Sparrow, No. Calif., bathing in the water tray

 

The mammals can get a drink pretty easily. The short-legged ones, like this chipmunk, are acrobatic and creative in accessing their refreshment.

Chipmunk on rock, No. Calif.

In general, the smaller the animal, the more often they drink, because they have a higher ratio of surface area to volume, lose water faster.

 

The chipmunks race over a rock to the tray, taking a drink almost every hour. Squirrels do a similar thing, though they don’t race, they prance.

 

For the birds, we put a stick and/or big rock inside the tray, to aid them and prevent accidental drowning. Some birds perch on the edge of the tray, some stand on the rock.

 

The usual array of backyard birds visit the water all day long: finches, juncos, towhees, jays, doves, chickadees, titmice, and more. Even nuthatches drink from the water tray.

Red-breasted Nuthatch, No. California

 

When a bird drinks, they dip their bill into the water, collect the fluid in their mouth and then look skyward, using gravity to swallow. But a few avian exceptions, notably doves and pigeons, have a sucking ability that most birds do not have. They drink and swallow, like mammals, like us, without having to tilt their heads up.

 

Some bird species, like raptors, usually acquire their necessary moisture from the body of the prey they have killed.

 

One August day last year, however, I saw this Cooper’s hawk, below, drinking at our water tray. In all my decades on earth, I had never seen a raptor drink water from a natural or manmade source.

 

This individual was born on our property three years ago, and has lived here ever since. I think he is so homegrown that he knows the water tray is always readily available.

Cooper’s Hawk at the water tray (photographed through a window), No, California

 

Night visitors, usually mammals, come regularly to the water tray. In summer we set the critter cam up to photograph our property’s hotspot.

 

Bobcat visit about once or twice every week (see first photo). Jackrabbits live on the property and are here every day and every night.

Jackrabbit, Northern California, at the water tray

 

This jackrabbit is having a morning stretch.

Jackrabbit stretching at the water tray

 

Every year is different, which is what I like most about living with wildlife.

 

Wildlife populations have good years and bad; here their reproductive success is primarily dependent on weather (food) and wildfires.

 

For many years we heard and saw foxes almost nightly. These are gray foxes, the native residents, they prefer chaparral habitat like ours. Then for several years we never saw or heard evidence of any.

 

Fortunately this year we have fox coming several times a week.

Gray fox at the water tray, No. Calif.

 

Lately this skunk has been here every night. They’re not a problem, and they eat carrion.

 

Striped Skunk at the water tray, No. Calif.

 

We keep the trays filled in winter too, because wildlife always need water. But in winter, if we are lucky to have rain, the trays stay filled on their own from the precious water that falls from the sky.

 

No matter what the season, there is often some lively activity to watch at the water tray.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander and the Critter Cam.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit, No. California

 

Tidepooling Point Lobos

Point Lobos, Monterey Bay, California

 

Point Lobos is a state park on Monterey Bay, and one of my favorite spots on California’s Central Coast. I’ve been there many times, most recently this past fall.

 

It is part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the largest marine sanctuary in the United States.

 

Monterey Bay’s underwater canyons provide cold, nutrient-rich waters that attract an abundant diversity of marine plants, invertebrates, and mammals. Everything from snails to whales cruise by.

 

Point Lobos, California

Kelp forests, one of the most productive and dynamic ecosystems on earth, are abundant here. They offer food and protection to marine wildlife.

 

With tectonic plates nearby, the granite and sedimentary cliffs and rocks at Point Lobos have evolved for over 80 million years, creating a shoreline mosaic of crevasses and holes perfect for collecting intertidal waters and associated wildlife.

 

Sea Lions, Point Lobos

 

Point Lobos, California

 

Hiking, birding, photography, kayaking and scuba diving rank high on the list of activities. But it’s also fun to explore the rocks and tidepools, discovering the sea creatures that make their home here. Once you get started, it’s hard to stop.

 

Tidepooling is like a seaside safari — so much to see and learn, and never a dull moment.

 

With changing tides and constant wave action, water continually whooshing in and out, there is something different happening every minute of the day.

 

My binoculars are with me wherever I go, and they come in handy at the tidepools. Here are a few close-ups.

Tide pool with sea urchins (purple), snails, limpets, algae

 

Sea urchins and anemones, crabs and starfish, sea palms, algae and other seaweed hang on tenaciously, riding out the pounding surf.

 

Tide pool with sea anemones above and below water

 

Crabs scuttle, sea birds forage, and marine mammals languish.

 

Black-crowned Night-Heron, Point Lobos

 

Harbor Seals on a bed of barnacles and algae, Point Lobos, California

 

Every tide pool is a different community, a different story. This whole rocky plateau is a world of tidepools.

 

Tide pools and tidepoolers (center), Point Lobos, California

 

Point Lobos has a long history of attracting humans in their various endeavors: Ohlone natives, abalone hunters, Spanish explorers, whalers and commercial fishermen to name a few. For a time it was a designated WWII defense site; then it was slated to be a  residential housing development (which was nixed). Edward Weston photographed here, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” and over 45 other movies were filmed here. It’s not far from Big Sur.

 

The wild beauty and magnificence of Point Lobos still calls. And fortunately these waters are protected now–harbor seals and sea otters can live in peace. Humans can explore and picnic and revel in the briny world.

 

Twice a day every day, the water recedes and returns, in its infinite earthly rhythms.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Harbor Seal, Point Lobos. Photo by Athena Alexander

 

Kelp forest, Point Lobos