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.

Markets Around the World

In the spirit of the holidays during a stay-at-home pandemic, please join me for a magic carpet ride around the world visiting a few lively outdoor markets.

We’ll start in North America and Mexico, cruise over Europe, look in on Australia, and end our magical adventure in South America. (Pre-pandemic photos.)

Outdoor markets are a good opportunity to observe the locals and their livelihoods; and purchase tasty treats and souvenirs directly from the source.

First up: Santa Fe, New Mexico. The local artisan market is located at the Palace of the Governors, an adobe structure built in 1610. Exquisite turquoise and silver jewelry are the specialty sold here.

I bought a pair of earrings from this jewelry artist in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Her busy hands quietly worked the fine details of her craft as she tended her table.

Urban markets, in their bustling atmosphere, showcase locally grown specialties and cater to big crowds.

Here are two popular California Bay Area markets.

Local produce is in abundance, usually harvested that morning or the night before and bursting with freshness.

Each market locale has its home-grown specialties.

Salmon, cherries and apples highlight the Seattle markets. Pike Place Market opened in 1907 and remains a popular and fun tourist attraction.

This Ballard neighborhood market (below) was a joy. We pitted five pounds of cherries with our friend after we left here, made jam.

Watermelon in Mexico…

… and grapes in wine country.

The celebration of outdoor markets at Christmastime requires mentioning the Christmas Markets in Germany and Austria. Classic holiday markets featuring sparkling light displays, outdoor stalls, traditional foods and beverages. Although I have not been to these markets, several friends have brought them alive for me.

Before we cross the Equator, I have to check on the magic carpet’s fuel level. It’s a good time to take a few minutes to click into the famous markets in Vienna…the first of which was held in 1298.

My friend and fellow blogger Mike Powell has dazzling photos from his visit last year: Vienna Christmas Market and Vienna Christmas Lights.

The magic carpet is in good shape, so we’ll glide on over to Australia to The Rocks Market in Sydney. I have spent many hours here buying souvenirs, but one of the most memorable items was quickly eaten up: a giant garlicky meatball.

I like all the markets–busy with people in their life’s work, live music and savory aromas.

But it is the remote village markets that are my favorite. Foreign lifestyles, rural and non-commercial, sometimes a foreign language barrier, yet still universally human and earthly.

We came across this busy African market in Arusha, Tanzania.

In Kenya we arrived by motorboat to this village island market in Lake Baringo, Kenya.

Across the globe in the shadow of Peru’s towering Andes Mountains, various crops like potatoes, corn and grains are terrace-farmed and sold.

All the big, lumpy bags in this village’s market are filled with potatoes.

While in the Amazon valley, we spotted these just-picked bananas being brought down the Madre de Dios River to be driven to market.

Traditional textiles of Peru date back over 10,000 years and remain an attraction for quality craftsmanship and fine alpaca wools. We found many markets selling woven tapestries and clothing throughout the Cuzco region.

I bought this purple sweater from this weaver.

I hope this magic carpet ride revived a few of your memories of markets or farmers or good times. I extend my warmest wishes for sweet moments in your holidays.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Creatures of the Night

When the sun goes down and the night turns black this Halloween, there are plenty of wildlife creatures to send shivers up the spine.

Owls, our most famous nocturnal creature, have serrated feathers for silent flight. They can glide right past you invisibly and soundlessly…all you know is a faint breeze on your face.

The shadows of the rainforest can make the small creatures large…

and the large creatures gigantic.

And where would our scary nights be without bats? In Australia the bats are so big their scientific name is megabats. Here are two species of megabats.

In the Trinidad rainforest we discovered a steady stream of these Long-tongued Bats shooting out of the lodge basement every night at cocktail hour, like clockwork.

A walk through the Australian rainforest brings out animals most of us have never heard of like brushtail possums and sugar-gliders.

Even creatures who are not nocturnal, like this lizard, lurk in the night…they have to sleep somewhere.

One night while Athena was photographing sugar gliders, cicadas came in, attracted to the lodge’s yard light.

I was admiring their bright green color and thinking how much bigger their cicadas were here in Australia, than ours at home. Bigger than my thumb.

I thought they were very cool…until one landed in my hair.

I screamed. Panicked and beat my hands through my hair like a crazy person.

And Africa has a very animated night life when it comes to wildlife. Moths as big as birds; and of course all the nocturnal mammals that are out hunting–lions, leopards, hyenas, to name a few.

The African savanna at night is like no other place on earth. Bumping along in a jeep past the black expanse, at first you see nothing. But then you start to see eerie eyes shining back at you. Pairs of eyes. Everywhere.

The eye shine has to do with a reflective layer behind the retina that helps the animal see better in the dark.

We were cruising along when we heard a lot of sloshing. The guide whispered for us to get our cameras ready.

Here’s what the light revealed.

The most terrifying night sound I have ever heard was in the Amazon rainforest: the howler monkeys. I’ve mentioned it before, but will include a sound clip again.

Howler monkeys are territorial so when one starts howling, announcing its supreme existence, they all start up. It has a stereo effect that permeates the forest in the most haunting way, sounds like a combination of tornado winds and deep-voiced gorillas.

Imagine hearing this in the dark as you’re walking to the bathroom.

Howler Monkey Vocalization

Wild monkeys, hyenas, leopards, owls, bats…a great way to get your Halloween sufficiently spooky. And while these animals may get your heart jumping, erratically even, they’re really not interested in hurting you…well, some aren’t.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

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.

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.

 

Wild Australia

Grey Kangaroos, Australia

Daintree River, North Queensland, Australia.

With travel suspended during this pandemic, let’s virtually cruise over to Australia and take a look at some of their wildlife. There is no place on this planet like Australia.

 

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

 

Indigenous to Australia, kangaroos are found nowhere else in the world. In taxonomically general terms, these marsupials come in all sizes, and there are many different kinds.

 

The adult Grey Kangaroo in the first photo was human size; whereas the rock wallaby below, also a kind of kangaroo, was only about calf-high. You can imagine how tiny her joey is.

 

Kangaroo Wikipedia.

 

Mareeba Rock Wallaby, Granite Gorge, Australia

 

Kangaroos go back tens of thousands of years as you can see from this ancient Aboriginal rock art.

Ancient Kangaroo Rock Art, Kakadu NP, Australia. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

Two bird species as big as humans grace the “Land of Oz”:  the cassowary and the emu.

Southern Cassowary, Australia

 

Emu, Mareeba Wetlands, Queensland, Australia. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

Smaller birds, i.e. not human-sized, are equally as spectacular, including parrots, cockatoos, and kookaburras.

Rainbow Lorikeet, Australia. Photo: Athena Alexander.

Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos, Australia. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

Laughing Kookaburra, Australia

 

One year we were determined to spot a platypus in the wild. We did all our research as to where they live, and devoted an entire day to hiking back to a desolate place called the Black Swamp. It was over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit that day. We never found one.

 

But we were rewarded with this echidna who waddled out of a pile of dead leaves. This spiny mammal, pictured below, has its nose (“beak”) dug into the earth, hunting for ants.

Echidna, Kangaroo Island, Australia. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

Still determined to find a platypus in the wild, we returned to Australia 11 years later and hired a guide. We learned that platypus are rare to find, very shy, and prefer certain waterways on dark days.  With the guide, we quietly skulked alongside a back stream in the rain, and were thrilled to find this one.

Platypus, Australia. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

On this massive planet, only Australia and New Guinea still have monotremes, like the platypus and echidna: a mammal that lays eggs instead of giving birth to live young.

 

Reptiles are also widespread on this hot and dry continent. Some are more menacing than others….

Dragon Lizard, Australia

Crocodile, Australia, Kakadu Nat’l. Park.

 

Flying foxes, which are bats, are one of my personal favorites. We saw them flying in large flocks at dusk on their way to hunt; in the daytime they could be seen roosting in some trees. Many Australians consider them pests, they damage trees.

 

There are different species across the continent; here are two, the grey-headed and the spectacled.

Grey-headed Flying Foxes, Sydney, Australia

Pair of Spectacled Flying Foxes, Australia

 

Nocturnal creatures in wild Australia are yet another world.

 

Rufous Owl, Australia.

 

This is a sugar glider, a marsupial flying possum. They are similar to flying squirrels, but not related.

Sugar Glider, Queensland, Australia. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

Even insects in Australia are extraordinary.

Ulysses Butterflies on Lantana, Australia. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

We’ll have to explore the underwater wild of the Great Barrier Reef another time.

 

With large marsupials hopping around and smaller ones gliding through the trees; birds that are every color of the rainbow, and some that are as big as humans; reptiles that can chew you to bits; and mammals that lay eggs, Australia has a very entertaining wildlife world.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Sydney, Australia. Photo: Athena Alexander.

Australia. Kakadu NP, Northern Territory.

Listening to Doves

Squatter Pigeon, Australia

Emerald Spotted Wood Dove, Zambia, Africa

Pied Imperial Pigeon, Australia

If you have ever listened to a dove, you know the sweet, gentle voice of peace. Seems like right now is a good time to relax into the peace of doves.

 

The bird that is classically associated with peace for centuries, doves and pigeons form  the family Columbidae. There are over 300 worldwide species. They live  everywhere except in extreme temperatures.

 

The terms “dove” and “pigeon” are often used interchangeably. Usually doves are smaller, and pigeons larger, but there are many scientific distinctions.

 

More information Columbidae

 

In North America, one of our most common doves is the mourning dove. It has several soft cooing vocalizations that add a mellow, repetitive coo-woo-woo to the air.

 

Mourning Dove, California

Mourning Dove Vocalization

They also have a soft, whistling wingbeat sound.

Mourning Dove Wingbeat Sound

So many times friends or co-workers have excitedly told me they heard an owl, only to find after we investigated further, that they were hearing a mourning dove. It is a muted sound, steady, with a slow, repeating call, and much like an owl.

 

Where I live in Northern California, we have a forest dove, the band-tailed pigeon. They do not have noticeable vocalizations, but the sanguine sight of their 25+ flocks synchronistically cruising over our valley is equally as calming.

Band-tailed Pigeon pair, California

Perched flock of band-tailed pigeons, California

 

The pigeons we see in cities, the domestic pigeon, are called rock doves. Sit on a bench in a city plaza and you can hear their cooing, like purring; the sun highlights their iridescent features.

Rock Dove visiting the San Francisco Hyatt

 

My favorite fruit dove, the Wompoo Fruit Dove, can be found hundreds of feet up in the Australian rainforest canopy eating figs and other fruit. I fell in love with its soothing wom-pooooo call.

 

Impossible to photograph, so high up, I give you an audio glimpse instead.

Woompoo Fruit Dove Vocalization

 

Another Australian rainforest dove.

Emerald Dove, Australia

 

Across the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii, the tender dove calls seamlessly blend into the fragrant air and tropical breezes.

Spotted Dove, Maui

Spotted Dove Vocalization

Zebra Dove Vocalization

We need more docile dove sounds in this world, and fortunately, they’re everywhere.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

White Rock Dove pair, Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, Oahu

 

Insects

Assassin bug, Belize

Hummingbird Moth, California

 

Common Green Darner, Anax junius, California

 

During this time when we’re all thrown off our usual paths, most of us are forced, in one way or another, to look at our surroundings in a new light. During Covid, insects may not strike you as enlightening, but then again, they might.

 

Here are a few insects I have seen on hikes and adventures that remind me to stop and take that extra second to observe with whom I am sharing the trail.

 

This is an owl butterfly that we saw in Trinidad a few years ago. At first glance, it looks like detritus, but look more closely and you see a butterfly. Here you can also see the butterfly is extending its proboscis (the curled stem in the head region), not something you can always see.

Owl Butterfly, Trinidad

 

On a bird safari in Belize last year, we saw at least a hundred butterflies puddling near a storage building drainpipe. At first it looked like black dirt in the gravel.

Black Kite-swallowtail Butterflies at base of drainpipe between building and road, Belize

But all that black to the right of the drainpipe, in the gravel, is actually a huge kaleidoscope of black kite-swallowtail butterflies. They’re sucking up the nutrient-rich moisture. Looking closely, you see exotic features like blue legs and a forked tail.

Dark Kite-swallowtail Butterfly, Belize

 

At home, where most of us are staying for now, there are numerous creatures we’ve never seen before.

 

Being aware of insects is not just a pleasant pastime, it can be a good check on your safety, as well. We learn early in life to pay attention to bees, wasps, and other stinging insects.

 

In the dry, chaparral habitat where I live, scorpions (technically an arachnid) live hidden under leaf litter. They have a stinging capacity, though not seriously harmful. They’re ferocious little critters, but only as big as your pinky finger.

Scorpion, California

 

Dragonflies. If you are able to capture a nanosecond with a dragonfly, a whole new universe opens up before you.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly, California

 

On a personal note, two weeks ago I slipped on loose gravel on a trail, and ended up in the hospital undergoing reconstructive ankle surgery. I have to spend my days lying flat on my back for awhile, so please excuse sporadic attendance and cryptic comments.

 

When I can walk again, I will be back on the trail. When the world is allowed out again and there isn’t a deadly virus threatening us, we will all be back out again.

 

But until then, I hope you are granted a chance to see new creatures that you never noticed before.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Cicada, Australia

Anise Swallowtail Caterpillar, California

 

Unusual Birds for Unusual Times

Male Frigatebird in breeding, Seymour Island, Galapagos

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Northern Potoo, Mexico

 

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

 

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

Tufted coquette, male, Trinidad

 

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

Snowcap Hummingbird, Costa Rica

 

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

 

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

Resplendent Quetzal, male, Costa Rica

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Roadrunner, California. Photo: Athena Alexander

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

 

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

 

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

Hamerkop, Zambia, Africa

 

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

Secretary Bird, Africa. Photo Athena Alexander

 

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

Red-billed Hornbill pair, Zambia

 

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

Vulturine Guineafowl, Kenya, Africa

 

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

Southern Cassowary, Australia

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

 

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

 

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

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

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

Two Runners-Up:

Crested Guans, Costa Rica

 

Emu, Mareeba Wetlands, Australia

 

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

 

 

Leaping Wildlife

Green and Black Poison Dart Frog, Costa Rica

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

 

Wildlife leapers come in all shapes and sizes.

 

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

 

Impala, Botswana

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Klipspringer, Botswana, Africa

 

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

 

Grey Kangaroos, Australia

 

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

Mareeba Rock Wallaby, Australia

 

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

Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Australia

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Blue Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Kenya, Africa

 

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

Colobus Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Africa

 

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

 

Spring Peeper, Frog, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Painted Reed Frog, Botswana, Africa

 

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

 

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, Costa Rica

 

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

Rabbit, Nevada.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Dwarf Gecko, Belize

or large…

Green Iguana, Belize. Photo: Athena Alexander

…they can vanish in an instant.

 

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

Basilisk Lizard, Belize

 

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

 

Katydid, California

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander except for last photo.

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