The Art of Our Seas

Fish, marine mammals, sea turtles, mollusks, crustaceans, seaweed, coral reefs and many more living beings share this planet with us, all underwater. Here is a colorful look at different kinds of art celebrating Earth’s sea creatures.

If you have ever spent time exploring the wild waters below the ocean’s surface, you know what inspires sea art. It’s a world of quiet, endless wonders; and one that we still think about it when we’ve come back onto land.

If you have not been under ocean water, there is plenty of art to highlight the sea’s magnificence. We have talented artists to thank for that.

Once you physically submerge underwater, the cares and thoughts of your life on earth seem to melt away. Talking and human noises drift off with the waves, and even gravity quietly vanishes.

I once snorkeled over a giant clam in the Great Barrier Reef. There were no voices guiding me toward it, no signs or crowds. It was just the giant clam and me. It was nestled in the sandy sea bottom and I was perhaps 50 feet above.

At first it looked like a brown blob, but I found it intriguing and slowed my strokes, and then recognized the outside scalloped shape as something different.

When I realized it was a giant clam, I hovered over it for quite awhile, but it never moved, and eventually I swam on. I have no photos, only memories, of this experience.

But fortunately I have Dale Chihuly’s elegant version of the bivalve mollusks, to remind me.

This American glass sculptor of world renown has created enormous sculptures celebrating the endless variety of colors and shapes in the sea world.

Born in Washington State and influenced by the Puget Sound, Chihuly has mastered unusual glass art embracing his passion for the sea and nature.

This is a gallery room in Seattle’s museum devoted exclusively to Chihuly art: Chihuly Garden and Glass. It is entitled Persian Ceiling and is a ceiling installation of glass “seaforms,” to use his word.

When you stand in this room and look up, it is the next best thing to floating among the tropical fish and coral reefs.

More info: Dale Chihuly Wikipedia.

Although I am not a scuba-diver, I have had terrific snorkeling experiences. In Australia you have to be taken out in a boat beyond the shore to get to the Great Barrier Reef. One of the boats we were on also featured an underwater photographer as part of the package. His camera was huge, not much smaller than a dive tank. These underwater photos are his.

From them you can see how real-life underwater scenes like these two below…

… can be translated into art like Chihuly’s. They bring the glory and mystery of the sea alive.

In addition to glass sculptures and wall paintings, sea art comes in many forms–too many to present here. If you live in or have visited seaside towns, you see it everywhere.

San Francisco, the City by the Bay, showcases a lot of sea art, and not just in galleries.

This staircase in San Francisco was a 2005 neighborhood project. Various fish, seashells and sea stars dance in the blue mosaic pieces. From the top of these steps is an expansive view of the Pacific Ocean.

Miles away at the Ferry Building, the inside promenade is decorated with tiles. My favorite is this octopus.

The Maritime Museum, also in San Francisco, is a monument to ships and sea art.

Now part of the National Park Service, the museum’s interior walls are covered with underwater murals created during the 1930s by Sargent Johnson and Hilaire Hiler. Exterior walls include sea-themed facades and tile work, all of it funded by then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) project.

This octopus chair (below) on the beaches of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico is a whimsical salute to the sea. It is joined by several other brass chairs entitled Rotunda by the Sea, by Guadalajaran sculptor Alejandro Colunga.

There is so much life and wonderment in our planet’s seas. Any way that the glory of the sea can be highlighted, is yet another way to express the importance of its gift and survival.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexandria unless otherwise specified.

Spring at Point Reyes

Spring brings a riot of wildflowers on the pastoral hillsides of Point Reyes, and this year has been heavenly. Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California is a large peninsular park along the Pacific Coast.

It is a park with a rich and diverse history, picturesque beaches and trails, cliffs and bays, a lighthouse and several other interesting and historic features. We often go to the northern side of the park around Tomales Bay, where all photos here were snapped.

Last week we found wild purple iris in hundreds of spots.

During the California Gold Rush in the 1850s, approximately 300,000 people arrived in California and began settling. That is when dairy farms became a prominent part of Point Reyes. Fresh creamy butter, and later, cheese, became highly regarded.

Back then, Point Reyes farmers packed casks of freshly churned butter and loaded it onto schooners. They shipped it to San Francisco, 30 miles south, where it was distributed.

Today there are still 13 commercial dairies here. Although it is a federally designated recreational preserve, the dairies remain legal via grandfathered laws.

The dairy farms continue to supply millions of households with delicious organic dairy products; and farmers never hassle the daily parade of cars filled with tourists, hikers, and beach-goers driving through.

One of the ranches had this mellow horse near the house.

More info: Point Reyes Wikipedia

Pt. Reyes map, courtesy Wikipedia.

In this area of the park there is also a tule elk preserve.

Cervus canadensis nannodes live only in California, and can be seen here in every season.

Last week we came upon this harem, or herd of females, lazing in the sun.

The Point Reyes elk species was extirpated in the 1800s, but the population was revived in the 1970s with a successful reintroduction project. There are about 300 individual elk here today.

We spotted these three male elk grazing in the distance.

With the proximity of the ocean, fog is a common feature at Point Reyes. Heavy winds too. There have been times when I was hiking on a trail and could hear the elk calling very near, but could not see them, obliterated by the thick fog. A few times when the fog cleared, we would be surprised, humans and elk, at how close together we were.

But this April day we were enjoying clear visibility and mild temperatures.

From the car, Athena photographed the three elk, while I was having a stare-down with this bull.

We regularly hike at Abbott’s Lagoon. It is named after two brothers, 19th-century dairy farmers.

There is a three-mile hike through chaparral and sand dunes to the ocean. No dogs are allowed here, and there are no food establishments within 15 miles. It is simply land and sea and walkers.

Quail, white-crowned sparrows, ravens, and raptors always join us.

Last week the male red-winged blackbirds were displaying for the females.

Mammals greet us too–usually deer, bobcat or coyote. We saw this coyote last week.

There is a patch of bare brown sticks along the trail, it’s taller than all the hikers, and nondescript. In spring the foliage and flowers come alive, revealing it as salmonberry.

When we’re not hiking, we’re driving the roads spotting wildlife. I drive slowly on the windswept hillsides, pulling over to allow fast cars to pass, while Athena’s camera clicks away.

Since the pandemic has curtailed our travel, we’ve been staying local. We visit Point Reyes for a half-day, just an hour or so from home, and it feels like a vacation.

And now I can’t think of a better place to vacation.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Earth Creatures

With Earth Day coming next week, let’s take a fun look at animals who live not on top of the earth…but inside it.

Mammals, reptiles, insects and many more creatures dig this earth.

Mammals. Many mammals live underground to give birth and raise their young.

Bears come first to mind, as the largest hibernators on our planet. They live roughly half their lives inside their dens.

Badgers, rabbits and foxes occupy dens too.

Many smaller mammals, like this mongoose below, live in burrows. Burrows, like dens, provide protection from predators as well as temperature extremes.

Warthogs, mammals in the pig family, do not have fur and use their burrows to stay warm, give birth and raise their young. They use their ivory tusks to dig for tubers, leaving the burrow-digging to other animals, usually using old aardvark burrows.

In Africa, guides warn you not to stand in front of any holes because it could be a warthog burrow; and those small but ferocious animals come bounding out tusks-first if they sense danger.

You might not guess that river otters use dens. Although they spend a lot of time in the water, they require oxygen to breathe.

Like warthogs and many other mammals, river otters use the burrows of other animals, usually beavers, for giving birth.

While many animals borrow burrows, prairie dogs are the original architects of their underground kingdom.

Found in the grasslands of North America, prairie dogs have short bodies and strong claws perfect for digging. They build extensive underground colonies, called towns, that can span hundreds of acres.

Where I live in Northern California, hibernating chipmunks are starting their springtime surfacing. These adorable little animals are so busy, I love it when they return topside.

This vole had me laughing on a recent day at dusk, as it stealthily scrambled out of his hole, grabbed a morsel from under the bird feeder, then shot back to the burrow. He did this numerous times, one tiny morsel at a time.

Some birds use burrows, too.

Burrowing owls use ground squirrel or prairie dog tunnels for their roosting and nesting.

Kingfishers and bee-eaters also nest underground. Bee-eaters loosen the soil or sand by jabbing with their sharp bills, then use their feet to kick out the loosened debris.

Reptiles. Ectotherms, like lizards and snakes who rely on outside sources for thermoregulation, need the energy of the sun to move. After a winter of hibernating underground, they wake up in spring and come out of the earth.

On warm days lately our western fence lizards and alligator lizards are joining us.

A few years back, we found this California whipsnake, who moves as fast as a whip, foraging on top of the bush because the ground hadn’t warmed up yet that day.

Insects and Others. The world of insects is immense, as you know, but here are a few familiar insects who live inside the earth.

Cicadas come out of their burrows after living underground for years in the larval stage. The underground hibernation can last as long as 17 years for some species.

Beetles often live underground too.

Perhaps the most familiar underground insects to humans are termites and ants.

Termites are colonizing insects, of which there are many kinds. The mound-building termites found in Africa, South America and Australia build above-ground structures that act as ventilation systems for the underground nest. Often the mound outlives the colony.

This is a dormant termite mound in Australia that is over six feet tall. In the background of this harsh and dry habitat you can see smaller mounds across the landscape.

And ants, well they are the most supreme underground beings on this earth. Our planet has tens of thousands of ant species. Highly social insects, they form elaborate organized colonies underground.

Leafcutter ants, my favorite ant species, can be found in tropical parts of the Americas. Next to humans, leafcutter ants form the largest and most complex animal societies on Earth.

In this photo, each ant is carrying a morsel of leaf they have bit off. They are headed, all in the same direction, to their subterranean fungal garden. In just a few years, their nests can grow to 98 feet across (30 m) and contain eight million ants.

Lastly, earthworms, crustaceans and many water-associated creatures also live below earth’s surface. These fiddler crabs were entertaining us during low tide, as they skittered in and out of their burrows.

Underground nests, burrows, and dens benefit the earth in many ways, and they have fascinating creatures to watch.

Whether they come bounding out of their burrow in a deadly pursuit, or languidly emerging after 17 years, underground creatures have elaborate subterranean worlds.

Cheers to Earth Day and all of us who live on and in this planet.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Frog Miracles

It’s that incredible time of year when our local frogs are mating. The adult frog is about the size of your thumb, but they are singing with voices so big I can hear them a half-mile away at the neighbor’s pond. Hundreds of them.

Pacific Treefrogs live primarily in the western U.S. The species we see in Northern California is called Pseudacris sierrae or Sierran Treefrog. This lovely little creature has been classified and re-classified so many times, its name is confusing. For simplicity here, we’ll use its more common over-arching name: the Pacific Treefrog (they don’t live in trees).

They require water for mating, so around January or February, depending on how much the earth has warmed, the mature adults journey on their padded toes to ponds or ditches.

The males use their “advertisement calls” to announce their fitness to competing males and to attract females. The male’s throat sack balloons up when it makes this call.

Poor little treefrogs have a lot of predators.

Snakes, raccoons, herons, egrets, and other small mammals and reptiles eat them.

The frogs breed in shallow water sources that usually dry up after winter; taking their chances to reproduce by not being in a predictable, predatory drinking source.

Pacific Treefrog Wikipedia

Although their body color is variable (green, tan, brown, gray, reddish or cream), they’re usually just green or brown, like in these photos. Typically they are the color of their environment; but they do also have the ability to quickly change colors to avoid predation.

It is difficult to get any photo of this frog for many reasons: they are more active at night (dark); usually hidden in leaves or half submerged in water; and they stop ribbiting when they feel the vibration of your footsteps.

In addition, they’re super tiny.

Now it’s past mid-March and the males and females are no doubt beginning to pair up. The female will lay her eggs as the male fertilizes them externally.

She will lay an average of 400-750 eggs, in small clusters of 10-80 at a time.

The eggs are visible in daylight, but you have to almost have your face in the water to see them. Binoculars or a powerful camera lens help.

The eggs are gelatinous tiny balls in a cluster, usually clinging to a twig or plant stem. Here are some clinging to the orange weed as noted.

After mating season, the adults leave and the eggs hatch into tadpoles about two weeks later. Left on their own, the teensy tadpoles aggregate for thermoregulation and to avoid predation. They eat algae and bacteria. This stage lasts 2-2.5 months.

In this stage they undergo an incredible metamorphosis eventually growing four legs, and simultaneously losing their tails. The tail gets absorbed into the froglet body. Because there are hundreds of thousands of tadpoles in the neighbor’s pond, we see the tadpoles in various stages of metamorphosis.

Here you see a tadpole with both legs and its tail. The tail has not yet been absorbed. The sun shadows amplify its features.

This photo reflects two tadpole stages on one leaf.

Here is an older froglet swimming, still with its tail; it has more distinctive adult markings. There is also a younger tadpole, tail only, on the left.

Frogs, tadpoles, froglets — they are a yet another reminder of the miracles of life and all its stages.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Northern Calif. in March

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the emergence of spring has been an exhilarating and uplifting gift. Here are a few of the joys we are currently experiencing in Northern California.

In the valleys, the vineyards are bursting with wild mustard, and ornamental trees are flowering everywhere.

Wildflowers are just starting their show.

California poppies, our state flower, are tightly closed on rainy days and dotting the hillsides with bright orange on sunny days. Soon there will be huge patches of them.

It’s milder down in the valleys. Up on our mountain we’ve had snow and hail several times this week, along with many hours of driving rain and freezing temperatures.

Most of us are glad because more rain and snow now, mean less drought and wildfires in the fall.

After a day or two, the sun comes out and the sky once again turns bright blue.

This wild gooseberry plant on our property survived several bouts of hail this week.

Our grass is brown and crunchy for most of the year. But from January through about April, the grass is rich with chlorophyll. I find myself often staring appreciatively at blades of grass, the sun shining through their verdant membranes.

The oak woodlands are a fairyland. The deciduous oaks, in their mossy, lichen winter look, have slowly been budding for weeks. With more light in each day, the buds are growing plumper, and soon a leaf will pop out here and there.

Underneath the oaks, early wildflowers grace the earth, like buttercups and milkmaids.

Before daylight arrives, the frogs are singing their spring praises, and I often hear duetting great horned owls. For a morning person like me, who’s always up in the dark, this is a blissful greeting.

Daytime birds and creatures are also shifting with the new season. Brush rabbits are rewarded with nutrient-rich grass and weeds.

Bluebird pairs are checking out the just-cleaned nest boxes, and the titmice have switched from their winter calls to their spring love songs.

Some days there’s thick fog and hail, other days it’s mild and sunny, colorful flowers shine through it all, and the wildlife are just as excited as the humans for this new season. Hope is everywhere.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Marine Mammal Center

Across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco lies The Marine Mammal Center. It is a hospital for injured sea mammals, where they heal the animals and teach us how to help.

The staff of veterinarians, marine professionals, and volunteers rescue and rehabilitate injured animals, then return them to the sea. In addition, they educate the public on what to do if you find an injured sea animal, and other practicalities. Conducting scientific research is also on their agenda, important to advancing global ocean conservation.

Marine Mammal Center’s website — loaded with facts and information about their organization, marine mammals, and ocean conservation.

The Center is currently closed to the public due to Covid, but there are virtual tours and online programs until public gathering becomes safe again. We visited in 2018. Individuals can take a tour ($10/person), amble on their own, visit the science rooms and outdoor hospital. School and group tours are also offered.

The facility is recently built (2009), employing green technology, and sits on a picturesque mountaintop in the Marin Headlands, outside of Sausalito, California.

Whether we live by the sea or not, most of us are aware of the perils and dangers our marine mammals endure. We read about beached whales, rafts of polluting plastic bags floating in the ocean, or the latest oil tanker spills — all of which add to sea mammal distress.

Additionally, the planet’s warming temperatures associated with climate change continue to distress our ocean inhabitants in a myriad of ways. Warming water temperatures affect prey availability, can alter migration routes, increase toxic algae, and more.

Despite all these harrowing occurrences, there are ways we can all help to make the ocean a clean, safe place for thriving sea mammals.

Marine mammals are similar to humans in that they are: warm-blooded, have fur or hair, breathe air through the lungs, bear live young, and nurse their young with milk from mammary glands. The difference is that marine mammals live all or part of their life in the ocean. Their similarity to us is what attracts many people to sea mammals.

Sea mammals include: pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, fur seals and walruses), cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), sea otters, and others.

Injured sea animals brought to the Marine Mammal Center suffer from many life-threatening conditions. Sea lions are the most commonly rescued species, often entangled in fish netting or plastic trash, or suffering from the ingestion of toxic algae.

After an animal is brought to the Center, veterinarians diagnose and treat the animal, and rehabilitation begins in these units pictured below. This is the hospital section of the Marine Mammal Center.

The Center also has science rooms with touchable sea lion fur, marine mammal skeletons and skulls, as well as videos and other interesting and educational sea information.

The northern elephant seal is the Center’s second-most commonly rescued species. The pups are often stranded; washed off shore in a storm, and separated from their mother.

These are healthy elephant seals, protected on the coast in Southern California.

Diseases, entanglement, malnutrition, toxicosis, or injury are common diagnoses. The list of ailments is a long one. For more info, visit the Center’s website page with the diagnosis for each animal they have tended.

The most important thing you can do when you find an ailing marine mammal, is not touch it. Every ocean or marine mammal organization in the world says this. Call professional sea mammal rescuers.

Sea mammal pups are often left alone, while their mother is out catching fish. Usually she comes back with fish to feed her pup. But if the pup has been removed by a well-intentioned person, the pup has been forever separated from its mother. Thus separated, the pups do not get proper weaning, and have not yet learned how to protect themselves.

For contacting a marine mammal rescuer, this link is helpful for United States citizens, but there are also numerous websites for many countries. There are websites, apps, maps, links, organizations, dedicated professionals and volunteers all across the world.

Last year a friend of mine was hiking on California’s Sonoma Coast when she and her husband came upon an emaciated unresponsive harbor seal pup on the trail. Experienced hikers and naturalists, they knew what to do. They knew not to touch the animal, and immediately called the Marine Mammal Center. A designated rescuer in the area was summoned, and came right away.

The rescuer, a volunteer, was without her partner that day, and enlisted and deputized my friends, and the three of them were able to net the pup and carry it up the embankment to her car. The rescuer then drove the pup to the hospital, the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. My friends were rewarded with getting to name the pup, and were later able to track the pup’s health via the Marine Mammal Center’s website. It was a happy ending — the pup survived and was eventually released back into the ocean.

There are many ways to integrate ocean conservation into our lifestyle, travel plans, and home life. This website lists numerous elements of marine conservation, and organizations you can access: Marine Conservation Wikipedia.

Those adorable sea otters in the aquarium windows where we all clamor to watch, the whales that many of us are thrilled to see, hear, and photograph, the barking sea lions we can hear from a cliffside. They thrill us, warm our hearts.

Thank heaven for the professionals, students, and volunteers who have devoted their lives to protecting the sea creatures, and educating all of us on how to perpetuate sea mammal existence.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Newt news

It is this time of year when the California newt is on the move. Adults are crawling out from under their rocks and heading toward the closest pond to find a mate. A great find on a February hike.

The rains have come and the ground is wet. Fungus and lichen grace the forest floor.

The winter rains of Northern California bring moist conditions to our parched land, filling up shallow meadows and ponds, providing perfect breeding grounds for the California newt.

There are 100 known species of newts in the world, found in North America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia. The California newt, Taricha torosa, is found only in California and is our most common newt.

Interesting info: californiaherps.com

This week, Athena saw a newt on one of our trails. One rainy night a few years ago, we found this pair in our yard.

They are sometimes mistaken for a lizard, but a newt is not a lizard. A lizard is a reptile; whereas a newt is an amphibian in the salamander family.

The newt has an impressive amphibian ability of living on land and water. They are semiaquatic, spending part of the year in water for reproduction, then living on land for the rest of the year.

Their permeable skin makes them reliant on cool, damp places like this.

Unless you scramble around in stream beds lifting up rocks, newts are not easy to find. They stay hidden most of their lives in moist environments, under logs and rocks. They are also quiet creatures. But at this time of year when the ground is wet and they are on their breeding trek, we are granted an occasional sighting.

The California newt is a small creature, ranging in length from 5 to 8 inches (13-20 cm). They have four short legs and move very slowly. If I didn’t know better, when I am watching one it seems like the whole world is in slow motion. One leg lifts…pauses mid-air…goes down…then another leg lifts…pauses mid-air…goes down.

Quite miraculously, they will travel on their short, sluggish legs up to 2.5 miles (4 km) to their breeding grounds.

Though the California newt moves slowly, it has few predators due to its toxic skin. It produces poisonous skin secretions, called tetrodotoxin, repelling most predators. This neurotoxin can cause death in most animals, including humans, if eaten.

One year we found this adult and eft (juvenile) in an underground well tank.

In nearby Berkeley, California, every year from November 1 to March 31, a main thoroughfare in Tilden Park is closed to vehicular traffic exclusively to protect the California newt. For 20 years the Park District has closed South Park Drive to allow newts a safe terrestrial journey as they march to their breeding grounds.

When the newts finally reach their aquatic breeding environment, mating occurs. Then, much like their their fellow amphibian the frog, the eggs stay in the water and a few weeks later the larvae hatch. Larvae undergo metamorphosis, developing legs and lungs. In this process, which takes about two weeks, their gills are no longer needed and are absorbed into the body. When they are fully metamorphosed, they leave the water and begin life on land.

So when we see a beautiful newt on the rainy forest floor, it is a marvel to behold. Tiny little legs on a mission to perpetuate their species. They can breathe under water and then on land. And though they are small creatures, they can kill just about anybody who dares to mess with them.

A tip of the hat to this amazing creature.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Sacramento Valley Winter Migration

We are blessed in Northern California every winter with the arrival of millions of geese and ducks. Arriving from Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, the birds spend the winter here on the Pacific Flyway.

The Pacific Flyway is one of four bird migration routes in North America (see map at end). Some waterfowl don’t stay long, they migrate further south in fall. Others stay here for the winter, taking advantage of the mild temperatures. Migratory waterfowl populations peak from Thanksgiving through February. After that, the birds return north to begin breeding.

Roughly 3 million ducks and 1 million geese spend the winter here, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Pacific Flyway Wikipedia

The migratory ducks and geese can be seen all over the Bay Area and surrounding counties, but 44% of them flock to California’s Sacramento Valley. There are several refuges in the valley, the biggest is Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge where there is a self-guided auto tour.

More info: Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex Wikipedia

While most of the Pacific Flyway’s natural wetlands have disappeared in the past 100 years, in the 1930s and 1940s several agencies were formed when the waterfowl populations began to decline. Refuges were established and water diversion projects were eventually set in place. The diverted water aids with agricultural needs and attracts the migrating waterfowl as well.

Today, managers, biologists and refuge workers maintain more than 35,000 acres (14,164 hectares) of wetlands in the Sacramento Valley. Local farmers work cooperatively with agencies, allowing their rice fields to be flooded every winter.

Due to current Covid stay-at-home conditions, we have not yet visited the Sacramento Valley this winter; most photos here are from our visit last winter.

In addition to the millions of geese and ducks, other birds and mammals join the raucous scene.

We spotted these jubilant river otters in a water-filled ditch where they were gorging on fish.

In between waves of wildly noisy geese constantly landing, taking off, and filling the sky, there are over 200 species of other birds enjoying the safe, protected waters.

Songbirds abound, like this western meadowlark.

Egrets and herons are commonly seen, and raptors hunt from the winter-bare treetops.

These ibis were probing their long bills in the mud, actively fishing. They eat crayfish, insects, invertebrates and fish.

We were fortunate to spot this American Bittern through the reeds. They are solitary, elusive birds, difficult to photograph. They extend their necks and look to the sky when they are trying to hide.

Another elusive bird, the ring-necked pheasants shimmered in the sun. Last year we spotted about two dozen individuals, more than usual.

Sandhill cranes are a treasured migratory species that winter in the Sacramento Valley, too.

There are also millions of migratory ducks occupying the refuge waters.

One recent year at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge it was a blustery, rainy day. We came upon this victorious shrike and drenched brush rabbit.

Geese honking, ducks cruising, water sparkling, raptors soaring. Another heaven on earth–this one, a wetland paradise.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Waterfowl Flyways in the United States. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Berries and Birds

With the onset of chilly winter days in Northern California, the insects are gone and the songbirds are feasting on berries. And what a party it is.

Native toyon and madrone berries are the most common winter berry on our mountaintop property. They ripen at this time of year when the berries have become essential.

Usually the berries begin to start appearing in fall, and occasionally a songbird will taste one to test for ripeness. If the berry is not ripe yet, it does not get eaten; it stays on the branch until riper days. I have actually witnessed birds taste-testing and then spitting out the unripe berry.

Then in January the feasting begins.

Every year is different depending on rain and temperatures.

This year the thrushes arrived in fall, more than I’d ever seen before. They stayed for a month or so, but when we didn’t get rain they left our mountaintop. I heard them down in the valley while walking in the park. It’s more mild down there.

January came and the rains came, and now the thrushes are starting to return, fortunately.

Meanwhile, the resident finches and some robins have been enjoying the berries.

Soon, as it always goes, a big flock of robins or cedar waxwings will arrive and spend the day here devouring the berries.

That day will be like the circus coming to town.

Birds everywhere, so much hopping and chirping. A blur of songbirds flying from one berry bush to another, lots of commotion and cross-traffic in the sky.

Robin flocks are unsynchronized and usually several dozen individuals; while waxwing flocks are in perfect synchronicity, and number about two dozen. The cedar waxwings, named for the cedar berries they prefer and the red-tipped wings, fly in formation and land all together in a tree before they disperse to feed.

You can see the tongue on this cedar waxwing.

Hermit and varied thrushes are solitary birds, so it’s not as much of a scene. They wait for the big flocks to leave, and then they hop around snapping up the few remaining berries in the shrubs and undergrowth.

We have other native berries here too, like manzanita, coffeeberry, and blue elderberry. Poison oak produces white berries. They all get eaten, but at different times of the year.

In the Bay Area’s mild winter climate, there are many ornamental non-native plants that produce berries and attract birds. The two berry plants I see most commonly in residential neighborhoods are both in the rose family: cotoneaster and pyracantha.

Last fall we were in our friends’ suburban garden two mornings in a row when large flocks of cedar waxwings dropped down to raid the pyracantha bushes. It was a lively and animated scene dominated by dozens of these elegant birds landing above us.

There is often talk of drunken robins eating fermented berries, though this is something neither I nor Athena have ever witnessed. Scientists don’t really advocate this theory.

I looked at five You Tube videos this week where drunken robins were promised. None of the five showed a teetering robin, but there were zealous flocks plucking at berries and creating a whirlwind of chaos.

Mostly birds prefer the fresh berries, for the sugar content. I have seen them go for the withered leftover berries when there was nothing else available, and maybe those few were fermented. There may be some instances where a bird found a fermented berry….

One of the glories of birds and berries, and life on earth, is the seasons. This season the berries will be eaten, the birds will be nourished, then the days will get longer again, and the thrushes will migrate away, and the spring birds will arrive to begin their mating and nesting.

The sacred cycle of life.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Gift of Cranes

Throughout time and across the globe, cranes have symbolized longevity, wisdom, immortality, happiness and good fortune. Here is a gift of cranes as we welcome the new year.

There are 15 species of cranes in the world, all in one family, Gruidae. They fall under three genera; each genera–Antigone, Balearica, Grus–is represented here today (pre-pandemic).

Antigone. The sandhill crane, Antigone canadensis, is one of North America’s two crane species.

While not all cranes are migratory, the sandhill cranes are.

In Northern California we welcome their migrations on the Pacific Flyway every winter.

Cranes are gregarious birds and form large flocks. They have specialized trachea and a big vocabulary, a very vocal bird.

Many cultures associate happiness with the crane, and it is easy to see why when you have witnessed their animated flocks and mating dances.

When they reach breeding age, cranes pair off from the flock. They perform conspicuous dances to attract a mate. Waist-high birds swinging their long legs and flapping their broad wings.

Sometimes just two birds are off on the sidelines jumping and trumpeting, other times one pair starts a chain reaction and several pairs begin to flutter and hop.

They do make you want to kick up your heels and celebrate the joy of life.

This male, below, impressed his mate by repeatedly picking up clumps of dirt and tossing them into the air.

Cranes are monogamous. More info: Cranes Wikipedia.

Although cranes are large birds, they are not always easy to spot because they blend into their environment and have their heads down, foraging.

This is what a field of cranes usually looks like. This field has several hundred cranes in it.

The Sarus crane, photographed below in Australia, is the tallest flying bird in the world, nearly 6 feet (2 m) tall. Antigone antigone. A nonmigratory crane, the Sarus can be found in India, Southeast Asia and Australia.

Cranes are opportunistic feeders and change their diet according to season, location and food availability. They eat both animal and plant matter. We spotted these Sarus cranes on a sweltering day.

Grus. Eight species of cranes are in the Grus genera, including the whooping and wattled cranes shown below.

Some cultures equate cranes to immortality. Whooping cranes, the second of North America’s two crane species, nearly went extinct and were then brought back. That may not be the true definition of immortality, but whooping cranes have done an impressive come-back.

There were once over 10,000 whooping cranes on this continent prior to European settlement. Over-hunting and habitat loss reduced Grus americana to 21 birds in 1941.

Amazingly, today they still join us on this planet. After over half a century of captive breeding and conservation programs, humans have revived the whooping crane population to approximately 800. This bird remains protected on the endangered species list.

A few years ago we visited the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo Wisconsin. It is the only place in the world where all 15 species of cranes can be seen. The Foundation is paramount to world crane conservation.

This first photo is a whooping crane in captivity at the Foundation.

This second photo is a wild pair of whooping cranes we spotted while birding at the Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin. They were tiny even in our binoculars, so Athena photographed them through our spotting scope.

Africa hosts six crane species. We were near the Okavango Delta in Botswana when we came upon a flock of these wattled cranes, Grus carunculata, beside a pond. Many crane species are often found near water.

All crane bodies include a short tail that is covered with drooping feathers called a bustle. I found the wattled cranes so elegant with their long bustles, smoky colors, and bright red wattles.

Balearica. The third genera of crane includes this grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum), found in eastern and southern Africa.

This is one of the most beautiful and exotic cranes I have ever seen…it didn’t seem right for them to be slopping around in the mud. While they foraged, their spiky golden crown feathers vibrated stiffly.

A variety of gregarious, exotic, elegant and dancing cranes to begin your new year. Happy New Year, dear readers, and thank you for another year of good times.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.