Snow Geese are Heading Home

It’s that time of year when the snow geese are beginning their long journey home. The fields of central California’s Pacific Flyway are drying up, the winter rains seem to be done. These snow geese are starting their return migration to Alaska and the Canadian arctic.


They have spent the winter here living on marshes, fields, and open habitats.  Preferring to be near water, this vegetarian bird forages on grasses, shrubs, tubers, and seeds.

Snow Geese

Snow Geese and Sutter Buttes

About half of a snow goose’s year is spent away from home, migrating and wintering in warm locations all across the country. See map at end.


More snow goose info here.


When migrating, they fly very high, and take one of four different North American corridors, or flyways, to and from their breeding grounds. Our geese here in central California occupy the Pacific Flyway (green, west coast on this map directly below).


A gregarious bird, they migrate in large flocks and nest in colonies.

Courtesy Wikipedia

We visited several northern California wintering grounds last month. As some of you know, Athena (photographer and partner) and I have been returning to this area every winter for over a quarter-century.


Every visit we record all the bird species we’ve seen, enter the information in birding software. We now have a substantial idea of the migrating species here every winter.

Snow Geese, Sacramento NWR

Each year is a different story. Species populations vary depending on weather, food supply, habitat degradation, and breeding success. In the span of this many years, most bird species recover whatever hardship they had, and eventually we see the numbers back up again. Some species, like the bald eagle, even increase. Some species decline.


As far as snow goose populations go, this year there were enormous numbers of them, more than we have seen in many years.


I have read articles and books by ornithologists and birders from long ago, like John James Audubon, or more recently, Aldo Leopold and Roger Tory Peterson. Even some fiction writers from bygone years describe certain birds in their narratives.


I pay attention to the species they write about, a bird they are happy to see, how they describe it to the reader. Sometimes those species have been extinct for some time, or is a bird that I know would be nearly impossible to see anymore, there are so few of them left.


What I treasure about the snow geese, therefore, is their abundance–the way they darken the sky with their masses, fill the air with their boisterous, lively sounds. They still have a presence on this planet.


Snow geese, Sacramento Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, CA


Listen to a minute of this recording, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Snow Geese, audio, large flock. 


They’ve had a mild winter here this year, have fattened up for the journey north, and now they begin their return trip.

Snow Goose “grin patch”

A seasonal farewell salute to this loveable bird, I look forward to seeing them again next winter.


Photo credit: Athena Alexander

image of range map for Snow Goose

Snow Goose Range Map, provided by Birds of North America



Pacific Herring Spawning


When Pacific herring spawn here in the San Francisco Bay, sea lions, seals, pelicans, and tens of thousands of cormorants, gulls, and migratory ducks are in a feeding frenzy. It occurs primarily in December and January.


The herring are known as a keystone species, a species that has a large and critical effect on the surrounding ecological environment.


A well-fed sea lion relaxing

If all the contingency factors are in place, in the late fall the Pacific herring come into the San Francisco Bay, especially Richardson Bay.


They wait for water temperature, salinity, and other conditions to be just right, then they head to the shallow shorelines to begin their reproductive process. Males release sperm, females release eggs.


She releases thousands of eggs at a time, up to 20,000.


Brown pelicans, Sausalito


The Pacific herring prefer a sea grass known as eelgrass (Zostera marina) for depositing their eggs and protecting their young. The eggs are adhesive, and are also sprayed onto rocks, pilings, and other underwater structures.  Eelgrass info here.


Gull with a piece of eel grass



Eelgrass, Zostera marina. Photo: Ronald C. Phillips, PhD. Courtesy Wikipedia.

A typical herring adult is about 4-8 inches long (10-20 cm). And being at the low end of the food chain, they have numerous predators, including humans. The juvenile survival rate is about one adult per 10,000 eggs.


It is easy to see when a “spawning event” is occurring. I’ve been watching them for weeks.  Although it’s impossible to see what’s going on underwater, above water there is a flurry of activity. I find the spectacle endlessly fascinating.


Gulls, cormorants, pelicans, ducks, and sea lions congregate near the shoreline. They eat the fish and the eggs. Sea lions are diving and snorting, thick flocks of birds are everywhere, there’s splashing and squawking.


Wikipedia Pacific herring.


Juvenile Pacific Herring. Courtesy Wikipedia.

After the eggs are released, the surviving embryos turn into larvae, then juvenile fish. In fall they swim out to sea, riding California currents.


There have been years when the herring were overfished; populations declined. Some years the herring population fell so low that fishing was prohibited. See graph at end.


When herring fishing had to be curtailed, people were forced to cooperate and manage the situation before the herring were forever lost. And they have.


Herring fisherman, conservationists, naturalists, scientists, and residents have joined together in an ongoing effort to host the herring. Dredging, boat activity, global warming, algae, oil spills and other pollution have all been important topics.

A raft of sea lions

Cormorants, Tiburon


Pacific Herring Management Plan, California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife.

Herring Field Staff at Work on the R/V Triakis, Photo Credit: Ryan Bartling

Herring Field Staff. Photo: Ryan Bartling. Courtesy

It is impressive to see what humans can do when they work together, and that spawning miracle is pretty amazing too.


Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Global capture of Pacific herring in tons, 1950-2009. Research by Food & Agriculture Org., graph courtesy Wikipedia.



Black oystercatcher pair, Morro Bay, CA

Oystercatchers are birds we see all over the world. They can be found on every continent except Antarctica. (See map below.)


Here on the western shores of North America,  we have the Black Oystercatcher. They can be found foraging on seaside rocks and cliffs from Alaska to Baja California.

Black oystercatcher in flight, Morro Bay, CA

Black oystercatcher pair, Bodega Bay, CA


The other North American oystercatcher, the American Oystercatcher, can be found on the east, Gulf, and southern west coasts of the U.S., as well as some western coasts of Central and South America. The one photographed below we found on the Galapagos Islands, where they also reside.

American Oystercatcher, Galapagos Islands

The UK hosts the Eurasian Oystercatcher, Australia has the Pied Oystercatcher.

Haematopus ostralegus Norway.jpg

Eurasian Oystercatcher pair, Norway; photo: B. Torrissen, Courtesy Wikipedia

Pied Oystercatchers, Tasmania, Australia. Photo: JJ Harrison, Courtesy Wikipedia


There are 11 extant species of Haematopus in the world, visit this Wikipedia link to find the oystercatcher on your continent.


With black or black-and-white feathering, and a long, red or orange bill, they are almost always found near ocean habitat. They are all the same general shape and size, about 15-20 inches tall (39-50 cm).


This photo, below, has a nesting pair atop the biggest rock, they are little black smudges in the center of the photo. It demonstrates the preferred habitat. The next photo zooms in to this pair and their chicks.

Pacific Ocean rock with nesting oystercatchers in center

Nesting oystercatchers feeding chicks

Although they are named for catching oysters, oystercatchers also eat other mollusks like clams and mussels, limpets; as well as gastropods like snails and slugs. They use their strong, blade-like bill to pry open the mollusk shell, and sometimes for digging in the sand.


Oystercatchers are noisy birds, with a call that is scream-like. Click here to hear. The birds often blend into the rocks and you don’t know they are around…until you hear them scream.


Thanks for joining me on this oystercatcher trip around the world. I guess we could say the world is your oystercatcher.


Flock of sleeping black oystercatchers


Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

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Oystercatcher Range Map. Courtesy HBW Alive, Handbook of the Birds of the World

Wildlife Auto Tours

Great Egret at Sacramento NWR Auto Tour Entrance

In the U.S. we have wildlife auto tours all over the country. They are useful for close-up viewing and photographing of wild birds and mammals, especially in inclement weather. Associated with national wildlife refuges, the routes are one-lane roads traversing the refuge.


I have been on auto tours in many parts of the country in every season. We’ll focus here on one of my favorites, the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Auto Tour in California’s Central Valley. This complex covers 10,819 acres (43.78 km2).

American Bittern

Every year in the Central Valley, migrating birds descend from the frigid northern climes. The birds overwinter here, in the Pacific Flyway corridor, from November to February. There are 5 million ducks, geese, and swans that overwinter in California, and 1.5 million shorebirds. It is not uncommon to experience flocks of snow geese numbering in the thousands.  Wikipedia overview. 


I have visited the Central Valley every winter for 27 years, and each year I am freshly enchanted by the avian visitors. There are over 300 species of birds and mammals.

Red-tailed Hawk, Sacramento NWR

Flock of White-faced Ibis

The auto tour is self-guided, costs a few dollars to enter. Visitors are allowed to get out of their car only at the designated “Park-and-Stretch” spots, where there is a small parking lot, viewing deck, and bathroom facility.


By staying in the car, visitors are essentially driving around in their own viewing “blind.” Birding and photography are done through your car window.

Athena photographing, Sacramento NWR

All the photos here (except one, the sunny one) are from our visit last winter to the Sacramento and nearby Colusa auto tours. It was a very rainy day. You can see how unperturbed even the most skittish creatures were, like the bittern and the brush rabbit.

Brush Rabbit


The Sacramento auto tour is six miles (9.6 km) long, and we usually spend about six hours here, averaging one mile per hour.

Loggerhead Shrike preying on a praying mantis

Pintails at Sacramento NWR

Snow geese, Sacramento Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, CA

Winters here are relatively mild, so we don’t get snow; but there is often rain. Some years the rains are so torrential that getting out of the car is like stepping into a tornado. Other years there are mild winters; the sun is shining, all the windows are open and not only can we bird by ear, but there is great visibility.


Auto tour passengers include elderly and pre-school ages, and all ages in between. This is great for people who cannot walk far, too. Some people drive through for a pleasant afternoon with the family. Others–geeks like us–are equipped with all the opticals we own, field guides, snacks and meals, and we linger at every turn.

Flock of White-faced Ibis, Colusa NWR


Whatever American state you’re in, look up the national wildlife refuge or Fish and Wildlife services for the nearest auto tour.


It’s a wonderful way to enjoy wildlife in the worst weather of the year.


Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

Black-crowned Night Herons, Colusa NWR

Jet (L) and Athena (R), Sacramento NWR


The Misunderstood Turkey Vulture

Turkey vulture

The most abundant vulture in the Americas, the Turkey Vulture is often misunderstood and even feared. But this bird is a friend of the earth, cleaning up carrion and ridding the ground of bacteria and decay.


Often seen soaring in open landscapes, Cathartes aura have a large wing span of 63-72 inches (160-183 cm). A gregarious species, the flocks (aka kettles) use air thermals to gain height, perspective, in their hunt for carrion.

Turkey vulture pair on fence, drying wings

As scavengers, they feed almost exclusively on carrion. When not soaring, they fly closer to the ground, using their keen olfactory sense to detect the smell of gas (ethyl mercaptan) produced by a dead, decaying animal.


For many years they were mistakenly thought to spread disease; over-hunting of this bird caused its near extinction. The population has recovered admirably, due to the legal protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and similar protections in Canada and Mexico. Vultures in Africa are still misunderstood, and some species currently face steep decline.

Turkey vulture, adult

More turkey vulture (“TV” to birders) info at Wikipedia.  Range map below.


So they are misunderstood as carriers of disease, when in reality they are cleaning up the bacteria that can cause disease. Other misunderstood facts of the turkey vulture include:

  • Their name. They’re not buzzards. North Americans often call them buzzards, but that’s a mistake. In the Old World there are true Buzzards, in a different genus.
  • Their diet. They don’t eat live animals. I have a friend who was convinced that the turkey vultures soaring near his hilltop home were going to carry away his beloved lap dog. It’s possible he watched the flying monkey scene in “The Wizard of Oz” one too many times.
  • Their intention. If you see a group of them flying overhead, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is something dead they are circling. Sometimes they are just riding the thermals.
  • Their identification. Due to their population prevalence, you will usually see turkey vultures above you more than any other raptor. People often look up, see a turkey vulture, and think it’s a hawk or eagle. While turkey vultures have big wing spans and cruise quietly above, they are not at all related.

Turkey vulture nestling


There are two easy ways to know you’re looking at a turkey vulture. One is  their dark-brown-and-white feather pattern and featherless red head, as you see in the first photo. Other raptors have more nuanced patterns, and feathered heads that are not bright red.


Secondly, they are the only raptor to fly with their wings in a “V” shape; hawks and eagles fly with their wings flat across. This V-shaped flying causes the turkey vulture to teeter and rock in flight, which is identifiable from hundreds of feet away.


Their name Cathartes means “purifier.” What they eat and have the stomach acids to digest prevents other animals from consuming unhealthy decaying critters, making the earth a cleaner, safer place.


Next time you look up and see a big bird teetering in flight, salute this purifying super flyer.


Written by Jet Eliot.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Turkey vulture, immature


Cathartes aura range. Courtesy Wikipedia



A New Year of Peace

Ulysses Butterfly, Australia

On this holiday, one that is shared across the globe, here are a few of earth’s wild and worldly inhabitants to remind us how to find peace.


Enjoy the gifts of food

Purple Finch, California, USA

and water, and help those who do not have it.

Zebra, Zambia, Africa


Take in the glories of nature wherever it appears.

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, Costa Rica, Central America


Practice courage and perseverance,

Lioness and African Buffalo, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

and navigate the dark.

Northern Potoo, Mexico


Paddle through adversity.

Domestic cattle, Belize, Central America


Take time to relax.

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America


Find whimsy

Hippopotamus, Okavango Delta, Botswana, Africa

and be flexible.

Spectacled Flying Fox Bat, Australia


May each day begin with song

Common Yellowthroat, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin, USA

and dance,

Blue-footed Boobies, Galapagos Isl., South America

with times when you shine

Galapagos Sea Lion, Galapagos Isl., South America

and sparkle.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica, Central America


Take comfort in your community

Parrolets, Mexico

yet reach out beyond it.

White Rhinos, Kenya, Africa


Demonstrate patience and compassion to the young

Thornicroft giraffe mother with baby, Zambia, Africa

and old.

Giant Tortoise, Galapagos Isl., South America


Embrace these basic elements of life,

and you will have peace and love

every day of the year.

Lambs, California, USA

Thank you, my friends, for another great year of sharing.

Written by Jet Eliot

Photo credit: Athena Alexander


Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay


Yacht club, Angel Island silhouetted in background

Otis Redding was watching the tides roll in on “Frisco Bay” in 1967, and here we are, fifty years later, still celebrating the tides of the San Francisco Bay.


At this time of year, a popular attraction and holiday tradition are the decorated boats. I noticed every night after Thanksgiving, increasing numbers of moored boats were colorfully lit.

Tiburon overview, the marina with decorated boats (center)


As we move further into December, the lighted boat parades kick off the holiday season. San Francisco’s boat parade is tonight on Fisherman’s Wharf, we went to the Sausalito Lighted Boat Parade last weekend.


It was a really fun event. There was music, decorations, a judging panel for the parade entries, kids’ activities, and an after-party with food, drink, and dancing. Various boat tours were offered as well. After the parade, fireworks capped off the night.


Athena and I and our friends were content five piers away from the blaring music, on a small pier with a front-row view. It was the houseboat pier; houseboat dwellers use it to ferry to their floating houses.


Before the parade started,  I was entertained by the houseboat dwellers bantering, talking. They stood in the dark, surrounded by a circle of small, inflatable boats tied around the pier.

Sausalito Boat Parade

One man went back and forth numerous times with several full backpacks. Our little wooden pier trembled with each of his heavy steps, as if we were all on a boat together. I think he had just done his laundry ashore. When he paddled away into the dark night, his tiny boat was loaded down, and the bay water was precariously close to seeping in.


That night the harbor hosted houseboat dwellers, parade watchers, and yacht owners…we were an eclectic group. A drone buzzed over our heads.


Then the parade started. Some boats were brightly lit, even gaudy, some were elegant and simple. Some had a theme, like a circus, or lighted marine mammals; others were covered with every light and bauble they could find with no particular theme. There were about 40 or 50 lit boats, and they were all beautiful as they slowly cruised by.

Sausalito Boat Parade

One of my favorites was a boisterous boat brimming with people, colored lights, and a mariachi band.


Although the moving boats were a delight to observe, nighttime photography was nearly impossible. So a few nights later Athena and I visited two yacht club marinas to photograph the festooned boats anchored in the harbor.


Here was the real richness of the night sea: the sound of clanking masts and sloshing water, rippling reflections, the briny aroma, the docks covered with coiled ropes.


That night there were no parties or celebrations, just boats quietly bobbing.


Otis Redding was living on a houseboat in Sausalito when he wrote the lyrics for “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” He, too, probably used a small boat to get to his houseboat, transporting his laundered clothes.


All of us, in our different lifestyles, years apart…we sit on the docks of the bay, watching the ships roll in and the tides roll out.


Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Otis Redding singing “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”

Otis Redding (2).png

Otis Redding, 1967, courtesy Wikipedia