Aussie Backroad Thrill

This was a backroad adventure that topped all, one afternoon in Queensland Australia.

Photographers, wildlife observers and adventurers, we seek out the backroads, carving time out of our schedules to slow down, look around, and embrace whatever comes our way.

We had been in the area of North Queensland for two weeks and had managed to keep our rental car on the “wrong” side of the road with success. Three days in the field with an expert bird guide had acquainted us with billabongs and kangaroos and all kinds of Aussie oddities.

After our time with the guide ended, Athena and I hit the backroads all on our own. We were in the Wet Tropics of Queensland, a unique and rugged tropical rainforest, about 30 miles inland from coastal Cairns.

Tropical rainforests are generally rainy and dark and dank, and this was no exception.

It was humid and we had the car windows open, driving slowly and listening to the birds that dominated the surrounding forest. Narrow lanes branched off the road in this dense thicket leading to occasional modest houses barely visible through the vines and trees.

Spotted Catbirds called incessantly–a green-backed bird who sounds like a city alley cat that’s just had its tail stepped on.

Here’s what they sound like: Spotted catbird sound.

Doves monotonously cooed, while cockatoos and parrots squawked and ate flowers, perched on vines.

All around us the forest canopy dripped with moisture and shrieked with cackles and cries.

By now we were familiar with the brush turkeys who roamed the trails, and whipbirds with piercing calls that sound like cracking whips.

Eucalyptus and giant strangler fig trees were by now familiar, too.

We were adept at spotting many strange creatures, but what we found that day on the Kuranda Forest backroad was beyond our wildest dreams.

Fortunately we were inside the car when it happened…

when the human-sized bird, the Southern Cassowary, silently emerged from the forest.

A heavy flightless bird with a long colorful neck and ostrich-like body was walking down the road toward us.

This was an adult male and it didn’t take long to see he had three chicks in tow.

Casuarius casuarius are extremely rare to find in Australia. Endangered.

We had already had a thrilling but terrifying experience with a cassowary deep in a different rainforest, days earlier. They are one of our planet’s fiercest birds. They have lethal claws on their feet and can quickly, if threatened, kick a human to death.

But this time we were in a safer position, in the car.

We knew not to stir; not to get out of the car or make any sudden movements, as it would scare off the cassowaries.

He knew we were there, but quickly assessed we were no threat.

He walked down the muddy road slowly, leading his three progeny, stopping occasionally to search for food.

Although they were chicks, they were not small. One day, if they are lucky to survive, they will grow up to be as tall as a human. But for now they were new to this planet, and still about knee-high.

We quietly whispered our triumphal exclamations and barely moved, eager to keep the cassowaries in our presence for as long as possible. The whole encounter lasted about ten blissful minutes.

We were lucky no other car, dog, or human came along to scare them away.

It was just a quiet time alone with a family of four cassowaries.

Eventually they slowly sauntered back into the forest, vanished into the mass of trees and vines.

Wherever and whenever I can, I take the backroads. You never know what you might find.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Casuarius distribution map.png
Range map. Southern Cassowary range in orange

Black and White Friday

We are often attracted to the colorful wildlife on this planet, but for today, Black Friday, let’s take a look at our charismatic black-and-white animals.

There are all sorts of black-and-white animals, domestic-bred and wild, mammals and insects and everything in between. As always, I will focus exclusively on the wild animals here.

Zebras are probably the most fascinating, for their psychedelic coats.

The human fascination for zebras goes back centuries, and so do the scientific theories for their striped patterns.

In studies of the evolution of wild animals, defense is usually the key consideration. One defense theory for zebras is that in a group of them the striped patterning makes it difficult for a predator to focus on just one individual, a sort of camouflage.

Take one look at a zebra group (below), and you see firsthand how your eyes have a hard time focusing on any one individual.

Aptly, a collective noun for zebras is “dazzle.”

There are many more zebra-stripe theories, read more here: Zebra Wikipedia under Stripes

In contrast, defense for skunks, another black-and-white, is notoriously their smell. That strong obnoxious liquid they spray is a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals. Most predators rarely attack skunks due to the foul spray…except for one.

Great horned owls are the only predator to routinely attack skunks, due to the skunks’ poor sense of smell. They take down all six skunk species, even the heavier-bodied striped skunk species seen here.

Orca whales, badgers, pandas, and many more wild mammals have black-and-white coloring.

I recently saw a fellow walker with a Dalmatian dog, and that got me thinking about all the domestic-bred pied animals. The list keeps growing.

The black-and-white colobus monkeys, one of my favorite monkey species, are an Old World monkey. Sitting in a jeep one day on Mount Kenya, I heard a lot of rustling in the trees overhead. What a pleasant surprise to see these animated monkeys swinging from tree to tree, their fluffy white tails illuminated by the sun.

Our flightless birds the penguins–a familiar and loveable black-and-white presence on earth.

These Galapagos Penguins, below, are the only penguin species that live north of the equator. They typically live in caves and crevices for protection. Now listed as Endangered, this trio was under mangrove roots along the shoreline.

Of the flying birds, there are many black-and-whites.

Some are more familiar like woodpeckers, gulls, terns, and magpies.

This magpie photo reflects the color blue (on the rump), often not seen in a bird that is primarily black and white. Only if the sun is shining just right does an iridescent color appear. I’ve seen it at different times in magpies, the pied kingfisher, and bufflehead ducks, to name a few.

Here are two lesser-known black-and-white birds in the U.S.

These striking black-and-white birds reside on other continents.

Lastly, it is interesting to note that many mostly-white birds often have black wing tips. It is theorized that the white feathers without pigment are not as strong as feathers with pigment. Dark wings or wing tips are thought to provide extra protection for the feathers most vulnerable to abrasion during flight.

Migrating birds who fly long distances, like the American white pelican and snow geese below, may benefit from their black wing tips.

While it seems that few things in life are ever just black and white, today we found some wonderment in the wildlife that is.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Spooky Nights

No tricks this Halloween, but I do have a treat for you. I’ll take you on some spooky night walks here, and you won’t get hurt because it’s only photographs.

You are perfectly safe, for example, from this hyena.

Going into the wilderness at night is a great way to see the nocturnal creatures. They come out of their holes and caves and hiding places, and start their evening hunt. It can, however, be a bit unsettling for humans.

Darkness adds to the fright factor, of course. When it’s completely dark and you can see nothing but beady eyes in the grass, it can put you on edge. Those bright eyes could be a harmless night bird…

or a pair of leopards hungrily searching for dinner.

When I first saw this creature (below) in Australia, I gasped, thinking it was a very large rat.

It is a bandicoot, in the marsupial family, and not Rodentia at all. They are nocturnal omnivores.

Whether you’re in a rainforest or on the open plains, if it is dark, the night sounds can be bone-chilling. High-pitched screeching, deep howls and roars are hair-raising.

Hyenas, with their maniacal whoops and growls and laughs, are the opposite of a lullaby.

But worse: the feel of a bat’s wings fluttering inches from the face. It’s happened to me twice.

Bats have excellent echolocation skills, and are not hampered by their poor eyesight. Both times I was outdoors in a very dark place and a bat came so close I could feel and hear the whir of its wings. Both times I had a similar reaction: I was momentarily vexed, then thrilled.

The truth is, I love bats. I like all these animals I have mentioned. They’re all a part of this incredible earth, and even when there’s a moment of fright, it passes quickly.

I find it a privilege to be in the presence of an owl; but they, too, can have some tricks up their winged sleeves.

Owls have specialized feathers and are truly silent in their flight. There have been times when I heard an owl hoot on one side of me, and then suddenly I heard the bird on my other side. It soundlessly and invisibly flew right past me.

While owls are relatively quiet, here’s an owl that can have an alarming screech.

While barn owls shriek, there is another bird I’ve heard that not only shrieks, it also squeals like a pig.

The oilbird.

Enter a dark cave in a rainforest where oilbirds live, and this is what you’ll hear: press this link for a live recording.

Post I wrote Oilbirds in Trinidad

Even if it’s not nighttime, a forest is naturally dark due to the heavy tree canopy.

This big vulture gave me a start. I think I heard him shout, “Boo!”

And then there’s the Amazon, the rainforest of all rainforests. Camping there was a sleepless event, a place where daylight could not come fast enough.

I’ve had a rat come tumbling through the thatched roof into our hut, cockroaches as big as a chapstick scampering around my toothbrush, and howling monkeys that sounded like a Category 5 hurricane. All in the dark.

Big ol’ spiders in the Amazon too.

Even the trees in rainforests are threatening. Look at the thorns on this tree trunk!

They evolve with thorns for protection, which makes sense, but it doesn’t help if you are trying to steady yourself in deep mud.

So when the sun finally arrives, it is usually a relief. Because everything looks better in the daytime.

Except, maybe, for this marine iguana. Day or night, it has a look that will freeze you in place.

So there you go, my friends. A lot of spooky nights for you this Halloween, with none of the heart-thumping frights and gasps. Always remember, daylight is just around the corner.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless noted.

Those Who Drink Nectar

The world of plants and pollen is a grand one, covering all land on earth. Without pollinators we would not have plants, and without plants we would not have food. Here are a few of the beauties who drink nectar.

Birds, bats, bees, moths, butterflies, other insects and some small mammals consume nectar. By dipping into a flower head they are consuming the nectar and subsequently spreading the pollen that is stuck to their body, thereby pollinating.

Current sources say that 1 out of 3 bites of food we humans eat is due to a successful pollinator.

More info

Wikipedia Nectarivore and Wikipedia Nectar

Although there are many different kinds of nectar-feeders, or nectarivores, the majority are birds and insects.

Of the birds, there are three types who do most of the nectar drinking: hummingbirds, sunbirds and honeyeaters. Their bills are shaped for probing flowers; and their kidneys and digestive systems can absorb and break down sugar faster.

Hummingbirds. There are over 300 species in the world, and they all live in the Western Hemisphere.

In this photo, you can see pollen on the tip of the hummingbird’s bill. This punk-rocking hummingbird got what he set out to get.

Sunbirds. From the family Nectariniidae, sunbirds live in the Old World. Even their family name has the word “nectar” in it.

Many nectarivores, like this sunbird below, have a curved bill, perfect for reaching deep into a flower.

Honeyeaters. The honeyeater family is a large one, and includes 190 species of birds primarily in Australia and New Guinea. Notice the bill of this yellow-faced honeyeater, it is slightly down-curved to reach the pollen.

It is not just the hummingbirds, sunbirds, and honeyeaters who drink nectar. Other bird species also drink sweet flower nectar.

The honeycreeper species is endemic to Hawaii. You can see this Apapane, a honeycreeper, has a down-curved bill for foraging pollen.

Parrots have sticky tongues for reaching the nectar.

There are also many insects who drink nectar, primarily butterflies, moths and bees. They have a specialized feature for reaching into the flower called a proboscis.

You can see the dark proboscis on each of these two insects, below.

In this Painted Lady butterfly photo, you can see the white club-shaped antenna pointed upward, and the brown proboscis is curved downward at a 90 degree angle into a flower.

This hummingbird moth’s proboscis extends into the honeysuckle flower.

Insects who do not have a proboscis, like ants and beetles, crawl into the flower for their sweet treat.

Because nectar is a super sweet concentration of three kinds of sugar (sucrose, glucose, fructose), most nectarivores supplement their diet with protein (i.e. insects).

Similarly, butterflies use their proboscises to extract salts and amino acids from mud puddles, a process dubbed puddling.

Some small mammals drink nectar, too.

Bats are extremely important for pollinating plants on our planet. The largest bats in the world, flying foxes, are one of my favorite bat species. We saw numerous species in Australia.

They have tiny hairs on the end of their tongues to mop up nectar.

Across the world in Trinidad, the long-tongued bat uses its especially long tongue to reach far into the tropical flowers for nectar. We found these opportunistic long-tongued bats at the hummingbirds’ nectar feeder.

Another mammal who drinks nectar is the sugar glider.

A nocturnal arboreal mammal found in the rainforests of Australia, these marsupials have gliding membranes that extend from their forelegs to hindlegs, allowing them to fly from tree to tree evading predators and foraging for food. They are opportunistic feeders and have a large, varied diet including nectar and pollen.

Birds, butterflies, small mammals and even big mammals like humans, we like our sweets.

In a world that doesn’t always feel so sweet, it is fortunate we have nectar and pollinators.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Emus and Other Oz Friends

It was a sweltering, hot afternoon, like many we’ve had lately in Northern California; only it was years ago on an isolated Australian savannah, when unique Oz friends came to entertain us.

They were not human friends, for there were no other humans there that day, except for the woman behind the counter at the empty Wetland Centre. It was the Mareeba Wetlands in Queensland.

It was quiet, desolate and sizzling hot, and we had the whole place to ourselves.

Surrounded by nothing but termite mounds and gum trees, I think the heat, over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 C.), had something to do with it.

So far, Athena and I had had good birding luck, had found lizards and birds here, all completely entertaining.

The frill-necked lizard, one of my favorite lizards. Their neck frills up when they’re alarmed. But that day it was so hot, not even the frill moved.

And the birds in Australia are just always a surprise. This noisy intense bird had a blue face and yellow eyes. They eat bugs and nectar.

This ruby-eyed bird looked like a cross between a pheasant and a cuckoo.

So then we were taking a break, enjoying a cup of tea, when four big emus came sauntering in.

When the first one came around the corner, I noticed we both sat up straighter. Then three more followed.

The cheeky giants gathered around a nearby picnic table.

Native only to Australia, emus primarily eat plants and grasses, and that’s what they were eating that day. They also eat arthropods and insects in grass like crickets, beetles, and grasshoppers.

Although they are technically birds, emus are flightless and have large bodies, so it’s more like coming upon a human or large animal, than a bird.

They are funny-looking with their hairless legs and long necks. And their feathers look more like grass than feathers.

Their necks are blue underneath the feathers.

We knew better than to think they were friendly.

They were indifferent to us, and continued quietly grazing, even as Athena slowly moved in closer to get photos.

They can sprint up to 31 mph (50 km/h) and have powerful legs and formidable claws, used for defense.

The second tallest bird in the world, emus average around 65 inches (165 cm) tall, about 5’5″. Only ostriches are taller.

It is a unique experience to be face-to-face on level ground with a bird. It doesn’t happen too often.

Eventually Athena got too close. The emu let Athena know by indignantly stretching its long neck higher than her nearly six-foot-high frame. At that point we both backed up, and they resumed their grazing.

They stayed there so long that eventually we went back to our table.

They grazed on grass while we sipped our tea.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Postcards from Kakadu

Here’s a park so big that it has four river systems. It is loaded with wildlife, some that eat humans. It dates back tens of thousands of years; and although it’s accessible, most people will never get here.

Kakadu National Park is a vast expanse in the northern tip of the Northern Territory of Australia. It covers 7,646 square miles (19,804 sq. km) and holds the double distinctions of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a Ramsar Wetland.

There are two basic seasons in Kakadu: dry and wet. Like many wilderness areas in the world, the dry season in Kakadu means the water sources have shrunken, which brings the wildlife closer to the water and more available for observing. The wet season brings monsoons and flooding.

More info about Kakadu: Wikipedia and Parks Australia

We were there in the dry season, in September of 2010. As birders we stayed focused on the wetlands, foregoing the waterfalls and other land features spanning this enormous park.

Due to the extremes in temperatures and conditions, accommodations and human establishments were few. We stayed at the only lodge in the park to be closer to the wildlife.

Every day by noon the thermometer hovered around 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 C.), so we did most of our exploring in the very early morning and late in the day.

Probably our favorite activity was the Yellow Water Boat cruises, cruising in a pontoon boat through the wetlands. We had safe and close-up views of saltwater crocodiles and wetland birds.

The largest living reptile on earth, saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) also have the greatest bite pressure measured in any living animal. Salties, as the Australians call them, can stay hidden underwater for an hour, eventually lunging up to grab their prey and devour it. They look deceptively docile.

Predators abound in this harsh wilderness. We watched in awe as this female Australian Darter wrestled with a large fish…and stayed until the fish’s tail went sliding down her throat.

This four-foot stork (50 inches tall or 127 cm) foraged in the lily flowers.

Equally as enticing were some enormous escarpments: steep, rocky plateaus jutting out of the floodplains. We visited two of the more well-known rock formations that were highlighted with Aboriginal rock art, Ubirr and Nourlangie Rock.

The rock art dates back about 20,000 years. Sources vary as to the exact age of the drawings, but the origin of the artists is undeniably Aboriginal.

The Aboriginals drew pictures not only as expression, but as part of their dream culture, striving to encourage the spiritual world to bestow an abundance of wildlife for hunting, healthy offspring, and other human riches.

By visiting these rock art sites and learning about the original people, a curious thing happened. The past fused with the present, and all of humanity came alive.

It heightened the sacredness of this place.

Link to Rock Art at Kakadu National Park.

Most nights after the heat had diminished by about 20 degrees, a simple walk through the adjacent campground became a fun activity. Due to crocodiles, walking around the wild and watery places was not safe.

So we looked for birds in the campground, where vacationing Australians in their “caravans” (van-size campers) were cooking their dinners and socializing. It was a raucous scene most nights, and endlessly interesting. Up above us in the surrounding trees were unique birds.

In the campground we stood out as birders in our geeky clothes and equipment; and two college students befriended us. They called us “twitchers” (birders) and took us to see owls and stone-curlews, and listen to unusual frogs.

The mornings were filled with sightings of birds and crocodiles and beautiful wetland scenes, until it got too hot.

We spent the afternoons submerged in the lodge swimming pool or reviewing our bird studies. At night the geckos in the room got loud, and we ventured out to the campground.

When our week in Kakadu came to a close, we returned to the Northern Territory’s biggest city (Darwin) about a four-hour drive away. In the pre-dawn morning we boarded a flight for the next leg of our journey on the Great Barrier Reef.

As we continued our Australian adventures, the sacredness, beauty, raw wildness, and danger of Kakadu blissfully remained with us. Thanks for sharing this adventure.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Birds of the Rainbow

There are many scientific discussions about the brightly colored birds on our planet. But instead of getting bogged down with melanin, refraction, and mating theories, let’s just look and admire today.

This is a day to relax into the rainbow.

We will start with the first color of the rainbow: red. The summer tanager and vermillion flycatcher, both found in North America and elsewhere, begin the rainbow with a hot start.

Shades of red vary in the avian world, these two birds are red-orange.

Pink birds, a variation of red, are not seen as commonly.

Next on the spectrum, orange in birds is often paired with brown. But this azure kingfisher sports a very bright orange breast and legs (and dazzling azure head and back).

This orange and black grosbeak breeds in our backyard every summer. The male’s colors flash conspicuously as he flies.

Since many forests have green leaves that turn to yellow, yellow birds can be found in many places.

Green is a color often seen in parrot species.

This violet-green swallow, a bird who nests in our nest boxes, swoops through the air showing off his elegant emerald finery.

Blue and indigo are both colors of the rainbow, and in birds there are numerous shades of blue.

This so-called green honeycreeper appears more turquoise.

While this turquois jay is adorned with several shades of blue.

The greater blue-eared glossy starling provides a blue spectacle all its own.

The aptly-named resplendent quetzal gets my vote for the most beautiful bird on the planet. The blue-green shades shimmer in the light, and the long streamer tail floating behind the bird stops you in your tracks.

We traveled to a very remote village in a Central American cloud forest to see this bird. We met our guide at 5 a.m. and he took us to the wild avocado trees where the quetzals eat. At one point there was actually a traffic jam in the forest because truck drivers, potato farmers and anyone passing by abandoned their vehicles to join our admiration club.

The peacock, a native of India with a long swag of green and blue, is incredibly eye-catching with a tail full of eyes.

Violet birds. The Costa’s hummingbird looks black in some light. But its throat and head vibrantly come alive with iridescent purple in the right light.

And this purple honeycreeper is so garishly purple it is difficult to look anywhere else.

Although the lilac-breasted roller has a lilac-colored breast, the bird showcases a rainbow kaleidoscope, especially when the bird spins through the air.

This leads us to a few sensational birds who grace the world with all the colors of the rainbow.

The rainbow bee-eater, a marvel to behold.

The painted bunting effortlessly showcases all the colors on the artist’s palette.

And lastly, the remarkable rainbow lorikeet, boasting the colors of the rainbow like no other bird on this planet.

Birders and photographers know well the game of light when it comes to the outdoors. If a brightly colored subject isn’t in good light, the color doesn’t stand out.

But there are those marvelous days when the light is just right: a day to celebrate the colors of the rainbow and all the glory on this planet.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild 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.

A Dozen Birds You’ve Never Heard Of

Whether we are familiar with just our local birds, or more, few people know ALL the birds. With more than 10,000 different bird species in the world, there are bound to be some that even the birdiest humans have not heard of. Have fun with this list of a dozen–see if there is even one you know.

1. Water Dikkop.

In the Okavango Delta of Botswana lives this long-legged bird in the thick-knee family. Burhinus vermiculatus, also known as a water thick-knee, is about 15-16 inches (38-41 cm) tall. They are found near water in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and as you can see, it does have thick knees, for which it is named.

2. Paradise Riflebird.

This handsome bird only exists in rainforests of eastern Australia. Lophorina paradisea is in the same family as the show-stopping Birds of Paradise. The male performs an elaborate display in breeding season. (See photo at end, of this bird displaying.) They are about the size of a small falcon. The name “riflebird” refers to the male’s plumage that is iridescent black-green in certain light, resembling the uniform of the British Army Rifle Brigade.

3. Yellow-winged Cacique.

Found primarily in the tropical lowlands of west Mexico, Cassiculus melanicterus is a large, bold, and loud bird; reminiscent of a jay in personality but not at all related. They have a floppy crest which you see on each side of the head here. Pronounced “ka-seek.”

4. Violaceous Euphonia.

A Neotropical songbird in the finch family, Euphonia violacea is such a stunning bird that it is featured on a Trinidad/Tobago postage stamp. They are found in several parts of South America and Trinidad/Tobago. The word “euphonia” is of Greek origin and translates to “sweet-voiced.” (There’s a second Euphonia species at the end.)

5. Red-billed Francolin.

Pternistis adspersus is found in a few countries in South Africa, and is also known as the red-billed spurfowl for the spur on its heel. In the same family as the partridge and pheasant, and resembling quail, they are denizens of the grass where they eat insects, vegetable matter, and seeds.

6. Snowcap.

Found in several Central American countries, the snowcap is in the hummingbird family. Microchera albocoronata is one of the smallest hummingbirds. We enjoyed a sighting of this unusual hummingbird, obviously named for his snowy white cap, on a Costa Rican mountain slope. There are about 360 species of hummingbirds–so many that they can’t all be named hummingbirds. All found in the Americas, hummingbirds have many different names like coronet, hermit, and woodstar.

Break Time.

At this point we have covered half of the dozen birds. If you have never heard of one of them, how wonderful for you to now have learned six new birds on our planet. If you are familiar with several, that’s equally as wonderful. Let’s celebrate with this bird we’ve all heard of. They inhabit every continent except Antarctica: the wise old owl.

7. Coppery-tailed Coucal.

There are about 30 species of coucals, a large Old World bird in the cuckoo family. Centropus cupreicaudus is named for it’s reddish-brown tail, but that dazzling red eye is also noteworthy. Derivation of “coucal” comes from the spurs or claws that many coucal species have.

8. Capped Wheatear.

This is a passerine, or songbird, that we found in Zambia. I never forget this name because I could be named the same. The name “wheatear” translates from “white arse,” which you can see in this photo below. They are primarily Old World birds, but a species or two have established in Canada and Greenland. Oenanthe pileata graces the grasslands with its melodic warbling sound, where it feeds mostly on ants.

9. Red-capped Manakin.

Manakins are entertaining birds for the mating dances the male performs in breeding–one of my favorite species. They buzz and snap their wings and perform spectacular lekking courtship rituals. There are 54 species, all found in the American tropics. We have witnessed 6 or 8 male manakins lekking, but they zip past like a bullet and are nearly impossible to photograph. We were thrilled to find this solo Ceratopipra mentalis quietly drinking and bathing in a creek deep in the rainforest of Belize. The name is from Middle Dutch mannekijn “little man.”

10. Collared Pratincole.

Pratincoles are found in the Old World where they are in the wader (aka shorebird) suborder. With short legs and pointed wings, they can catch insects on the fly, like swallows–an unusual trick for a shorebird. We found this Glareola pratincola in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, Africa. The name “pratincole” comes from the Latin words prātum meadow and incola resident, although they are more water resident than meadow.

11. Black-crowned Tityra.

A medium-sized songbird, titiyras can be found in parts of Mexico, Central America, South America and Trinidad. They feed on fruit and insects, and often lay their eggs in woodpecker nests, so you almost always see them in trees. We spotted this Tityra inquisitor in Costa Rica, but they are common in many Central and South American countries.

12. Spangled Drongo.

Drongos are also a songbird species, found in the Old World tropics. They are named for their forked tails: from Greek dikros “forked” and oura “tail.” Some drongos have elaborate tail decorations, like the Dicrurus bracteatus photographed here. There is only one drongo species in Australia, so we were lucky to find this showy bird with its bright red eyes and decorative markings, singing a complex call in the rainforest.

However many names you recognized, the good news is there’s at least 10,000 more, so striving to know them all will keep us busy for a lifetime. If you previously knew none of them, you’ve learned a lot today.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Wild Parrots

There are approximately 398 species of parrots in the world. They live primarily in tropical and subtropical countries. Let’s immerse ourselves in this wonderfully garish and charismatic bird.

Parrots are classified under the Order Psittaciformes and this includes cockatoos, lorikeets, parakeets, macaws and of course parrots. All birds featured here are wild parrots (photographed pre-Covid).

When you spot a wild parrot, the first surprise is its stunningly bright colors. The bird’s color palette is in full swing–blues, reds, yellows, oranges and lime greens.

But even with their splashy colors, they’re not always as conspicuous as you might think.

This mealy parrot blends in perfectly with the trees.

We spotted this yellow-naped parrot (Amazona auropalliata) from aboard a small boat on a river. You can see how much this green and yellow parrot blends into the background.

Focusing further, you see that a parrot’s bill is magnificent. It is not fused to the skull, allowing it to move independently and also contributing to tremendous biting pressure. A large macaw, like this one below, has the same bite force as a large dog.

The strong bill and jaw helps parrots to crack open hard nuts; their dexterous tongues work out the seeds.

With eyes positioned high on the skull, a parrot can see over and even behind its head.

Even their feet are impressive. Their zygodactyl toes (two toes face forward, two toes face backward) give them dexterity similar to a human’s hand. You can see how this cockatoo, about the size of a small puppy, can effortlessly balance on flimsy branches.

Wikipedia Parrot

Their intelligence is extraordinary. As a highly social creature, they converse frequently among themselves and develop distinct local dialects. They use their local dialects to distinguish familiar members of the flock, and ostracize the unfamiliar members.

You always know when parrots are nearby for the loud squawking you hear among their flocks. They can also be trained to imitate human speech and other sounds.

Unfortunately, their intelligence and beauty have made them attractive as pets for humans, leading to much trouble for parrots. Illegal trapping of wild parrots for the pet trade has led to near-extinction of many parrot species. Pet birds should always be purchased from a reputable source.

Wikipedia International Parrot Trade

Macaws are parrots found only in the New World. We trekked to a macaw lick one dawn morning in Peru, to watch these red-and-green macaws.

They extract and eat minerals out of the clay river bank to neutralize natural toxins they have ingested. Post I wrote about it: The Macaw Lick.

Of the 350+ parrot species in the world, 56 can be found in Australia. If you are looking to see parrots in the wild, this continent is a joy for spotting parrots.

Eucalyptus trees (aka “gum trees” to Australians) and other flowering trees supply the diet for many parrot species.

Cockatoos, one of the largest parrots, can be seen in Australia’s urban and rural settings.

We came upon this large cockatoo flock foraging in the fields.

A bold and kaleidoscopic bird that can talk, fly, climb, bite like a dog and see behind its head. That’s a talented bird.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Parrot range.png
Range Map: Parrots. Courtesy Wikipedia.