Lovable Lizards

Land Iguana, Isabela Isl., Galapagos

There are over 6,000 species of lizards on our planet, residing on all continents except Antarctica.  Here are some basic facts and photos of a few of my favorites.

 

One thing I love about lizards is their adaptability. Depending on the severity of danger, they can sacrifice their tail and grow a new one, change colors, and vanish in an instant.

Green Iguana, Costa Rica

Another thing I love is their solar power. Lizards are ectotherms, they require heat sources outside their body to function. Also known as cold-blooded (not technically accurate), lizards regulate their body temperature according to the sun.

 

Once in awhile I will find a lizard when the sun has been absent, like at dawn on a foggy day, and they are frozen in place. Immobile. I like this about lizards, too — their vulnerability. Of course, that’s not their favorite thing.

 

There are many remarkable features about lizards, read more here:

Lizard Wikipedia

 

Green Anole, Texas

 

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

With six thousand lizard species, there are thousands of variations. I have watched lizards run across water, eat algae under water, flare out their neck to twice its size, and hang upside down for days.

 

Some lizards change colors to attract mates, some change colors to escape detection (camouflage), and others are bright their whole life.

 

Hawaiian Gecko

 

Spiny-tailed Iguana pair, Belize

I live in a hot, dry climate in California. In the spring and summer we have three regular lizard species, each is a home-time favorite and much revered.

Western Fence Lizard, California

The western fence lizard is the most prevalent, we see them every day from May through October. The male does push-ups and displays a brilliant blue belly during breeding season.

Western Fence Lizard, California, gorging on nuptial ants

 

Plus, this lizard has an astonishing feature. They have a protein in their blood that kills the bacterium in the tick that causes Lyme’s Disease.

 

Ticks often feed on lizards’ blood, including the deer tick that carries Lyme’s Disease. When the deer tick feeds on the western fence lizard, the bacterium is killed. My chances of getting Lyme’s Disease are considerably less because of this  lizard.

 

We also have the alligator lizard, named for their resemblance to alligators. They are skittish and infrequent, but when they appear, it is a highlight of the day.

Northern Alligator Lizard, California

Our third reptile is the western skink. They are almost always hidden, their predator list is long. I’ve learned to recognize their sound when they rustle beneath leaves; so if I wait nearby, I sometimes see them.

 

Western skink, Calif.

 

Some lizards, like the skink, move like a snake. They have short legs and wiggle and slither. But most lizards are quadrupedal and move with an alternating gait. Another thing I love about lizards…watching them walk or run, a kind of reptilian sashay that says “attitude” to me.

Nile Monitor, Botswana

 

The marine iguana, the only underwater lizard in the world, lives on the Galapagos Islands. I’ve been snorkeling when they entered the water–that’s a strange thing, to be snorkeling with a large lizard. A true thrill. They sneeze out the sea salt when they return to land.

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

Lizards bask in the sun, leap through the air, let go of their tail if it’s in the jaws of a predator, and effortlessly change colors. I wouldn’t mind having all of these features, but since I cannot, I’m happy to watch…maybe I’ll learn something.

Written by Jet Eliot
Photos by Athena Alexander

 


Frill-necked lizard, Australia

 

Golden Tegu Lizard, Trinidad

 

Advertisements

Human-sized Birds

Southern Cassowary, Queensland, Australia

There are four bird species on the planet that are as tall as humans: the Ratites. They are all flightless.

 

Birds that are classified as ratites are so-named from the Latin ratis, for raft. A raft is a vessel that has no keel, and a ratite is a bird that has no keel. In bird anatomy, feather muscles attach to the keel or sternum (breastbone); and if there is no keel, the bird is flightless.

Emu, Mareeba Wetlands, Queensland

In an earlier era, there were more ratites on earth. Today there are these four tall species–ostrich, emu, cassowary, rhea–and New Zealand’s dwindling population of small ratites, the kiwis.

 

Ratite Wikipedia

Southern Cassowary adult with chicks, Queensland, Australia

They date back 56 million years, and look as prehistoric as they are–large round bodies on long legs, with long necks.

 

Ratites have two- or three-toed feet, often used for kicking, and lay very large eggs, the largest in the world. Omnivores, they prefer roots, seeds, and leaves; but will also eat insects or small animals if necessary. They have wings but do not fly, and instead run at very fast speeds.

Ostrich, male, East Africa

Ostrich. The largest and heaviest land bird in the world…and also the fastest. With strong legs, they can sprint up to 43 miles per hour (70 kph), and maintain a steady speed of 31 mph (50 kph).

 

They also have the largest eyes of any land invertebrate. With their excellent eyesight, nine foot height (2.8m), and sprinting abilities, ostriches have many ways to escape African predators.

Ostrich Pair, resting, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

We usually found them in the tall African grass in small groups of three and four. They disappeared quickly whenever our jeep approached, running with long strides.

 

Emus can only be found in Australia. They are the second-largest bird, after the ostrich, reaching up to 6.2 feet tall (1.9m). They were prominent in ancient Aboriginal mythology, and remain revered in Australia today as the national bird.

Australian Coat of Arms, emu on right

Emus at Mareeba Wetlands

One sizzling day on a remote preserve in Mareeba, Queensland, we were visited by a group of four emus. We were under shade, looking out at the dusty, deserted landscape when an emu soundlessly approached from around the corner. We remained still, waiting to see what would happen.

 

Then another one came along, and two more. They had their heads down, nibbling, walking around in search of food.

 

They stayed so long that eventually we moved on.

 

Cassowary.  Another Australian ratite, they can also be found in New Guinea, Indonesia, and a few nearby islands…but there are very few left in the world. This is the third tallest bird in the world, after ostrich and emu.

 

Southern Cassowary, male, Australia

While many of the cassowary features are similar to the aforementioned ratites, its unique head casque, made of keratin, is exclusive. They are also the most brightly colored of the four tall ratites, and most dangerous, known to kill humans with their blade-like foot claw.

 

Every Australian we talked to said they had never seen a cassowary and we wouldn’t either.

 

Not only did we see one, we saw several, and one experience was more than memorable, it was terrifying.

Daintree Cassowary Crossing

We were in the rainforest with our guide when a male cassowary approached us. For about one minute he was unperturbed. Then he started walking slowly around in a circle with stiff legs, sort of stomping. Our guide, in a calculated calm voice quietly said, “It’s time to leave.”

 

Although we backed up and gave the cassowary his space, the bird advanced. The guide whispered his instructions: do not turn your backs, do not run. So we continued backing up–Athena, the guide, and I. But the cassowary continued advancing.

 

Our guide quickly tried something else. He stood beside a large tree, forming a sort of shield; told us to continue backing up behind his shield. We backed ourselves out of the forest and waited for the guide. Ten long minutes later, the guide joined us.

 

We didn’t know it, but apparently we were near the cassowary’s hidden ground nest.

 

The rhea is the only tall ratite I have not seen. Grassland birds that look much like the ostrich and emu, rheas live in different parts of South America.

Greater rhea pair arp.jpg

Greater Rhea. Photo Adrian Pingstone. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

There might be a day when I see a rhea in the wild, and then I will have the privilege of saying I’ve seen all four human-sized ratites.

 

But I’m in no hurry for this, because I’ve had so many exhilarating ratite experiences…enough to last me a lifetime.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander, except rhea

Australian Emu

 

Oystercatchers

Black oystercatcher pair, Morro Bay, CA

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

 

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

Black oystercatcher in flight, Morro Bay, CA

Black oystercatcher pair, Bodega Bay, CA

 

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

American Oystercatcher, Galapagos Islands

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

Haematopus ostralegus Norway.jpg

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Pacific Ocean rock with nesting oystercatchers in center

Nesting oystercatchers feeding chicks

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

 

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

 

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

 

Flock of sleeping black oystercatchers

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

Image result for world map of oystercatchers?

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

A New Year of Peace

Ulysses Butterfly, Australia

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

 

Enjoy the gifts of food

Purple Finch, California, USA

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

Zebra, Zambia, Africa

 

Take in the glories of nature wherever it appears.

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, Costa Rica, Central America

 

Practice courage and perseverance,

Lioness and African Buffalo, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

and navigate the dark.

Northern Potoo, Mexico

 

Paddle through adversity.

Domestic cattle, Belize, Central America

 

Take time to relax.

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

 

Find whimsy

Hippopotamus, Okavango Delta, Botswana, Africa

and be flexible.

Spectacled Flying Fox Bat, Australia

 

May each day begin with song

Common Yellowthroat, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin, USA

and dance,

Blue-footed Boobies, Galapagos Isl., South America

with times when you shine

Galapagos Sea Lion, Galapagos Isl., South America

and sparkle.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica, Central America

 

Take comfort in your community

Parrolets, Mexico

yet reach out beyond it.

White Rhinos, Kenya, Africa

 

Demonstrate patience and compassion to the young

Thornicroft giraffe mother with baby, Zambia, Africa

and old.

Giant Tortoise, Galapagos Isl., South America

 

Embrace these basic elements of life,

and you will have peace and love

every day of the year.

Lambs, California, USA

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

Written by Jet Eliot

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Eucalyptus in the Bay Area

Eucalyptus trees, eucalyptus globulus, Berkeley, CA

A tree that is native to Australia, the eucalyptus also thrives in the San Francisco Bay Area. This has been a fiercely contested topic for over thirty years.

 

I am still a vagabond after the fires last month destroyed parts of our home, spent this past weekend at a friend’s in the Berkeley/East Bay area. This part of the Bay Area has many eucalyptus trees. One day I took a walk through a large cemetery. It was filled with eucalyptus trees, and I was reminded of the controversy.

 

Some people like the eucalyptus trees. The pungent fragrance, exotic multi-colored trunks, and tall stature are pleasing. The tree produces a sweet nectar that draws hummingbirds, and other birds. It has seed pods and seasonal flowers, and elegant pointy leaves. It has beneficial medicinal value, too.

Eucalyptus tree trunk, Berkeley, CA. Ground debris has been cleaned up by groundskeepers.

 

I am always happy to see the flocks of yellow-rumped warblers that invariably visit groves of eucalyptus. The cheerful birds dance around in the tall treetops.

 

Other people despise the tree. The bark sheds in long strips, and sometimes limbs drop off too, making it a danger. Bark and pods and leaves litter the ground. Fire Departments all over California curse the flammability of the tree.

 

Moreover, a non-native invasive, they can overtake the native flora, and corresponding fauna as well. Due to its ability to readily re-sprout, it is nearly impossible to fully eradicate without use of strong pesticides.

 

Lawsuits, protests, campaigns, and debates have sparked the community for decades.

 

Eucalyptus leaves, Berkeley, CA

 

Atlantic magazine article about the debate. 

 

As with much of Bay Area history, the California Gold Rush of the 1850s started the trend when the population dramatically increased. Lumber was needed to build housing. By the early 1900s entrepreneurs, like Frank C. Havens, a real estate developer, were certain this fast-growing tree was the perfect solution for quick lumber.  He imported eucalyptus seedlings from Australia, and planted millions of trees all over the Bay Area.

 

Soon after, he discovered that the wood was too young for lumber use. The wood bent, cracked, and shrank.

 

In today’s bigger picture, there are 700+ species of eucalyptus, native to Australia and surroundings. There they call it “the gum tree.” Gum trees are everywhere. The leaves are the koala’s main diet.

 

A farmer and his dog, Kangaroo Isl., Aus.; in a grove of gum trees

 

One day while in Australia, we were looking for koalas in this grove (above). A ranger had told us we would find koalas here, and we had spent an hour searching for them, but found nothing. Then a farmer drove up (we were on his property), asked us if we needed help. We told him what we were doing, he leaned out of the front window, pointed up and showed us three koalas sleeping in the trees.

 

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree (Blue-winged Kookaburra, Queensland, Australia)

 

Eucalyptus globulus, also known as the Tasmanian Blue Gum, is the prevalent species in the Bay Area. They usually range in height from 98-180 feet tall (30-55 m).

 

The get-rich-quick themes of yesteryear have caused problems for native plants of today. All over the world there are theories and plans for eradicating invasive non-natives, making more hospitable space for native species; not just for eucalyptus trees, but for many plants and animals.

 

But as I stood underneath the Berkeley eucalyptus trees this past weekend, I filled my lungs with the refreshing aroma, and thanked them for their strength and beauty.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Aus., in gum tree

 

Kangaroos

Eastern Grey Kangaroo

It is an unusual thing to see a large mammal effortlessly hopping across the countryside.

 

Eastern Grey Kangaroo pair

 

Endemic to Australia, kangaroos live on most of the continent and some surrounding islands, see map below. Called macropods for their family name Macropodidae, there are about 55 species of kangaroos.

 

There are several species of large kangaroos, and they are roughly the size of an adult human, or a little bigger. In addition there are about 50 smaller macropods including wallabies, wallaroos, and tree kangaroos. Wallabies are generally knee-high.

 

Mareeba Rock Wallaby with joey

 

Ancient Kangaroo Rock Art, Kakadu NP

 

Wikipedia overview.

 

While diets vary for each species, all kangaroos are herbivores. They have specialized teeth and chambered stomachs for eating and digesting grass and plants; can endure long periods without drinking, by getting water from their diet.

 

Red-legged Pademelon with joey

 

Like most marsupials, kangaroos are born after a short gestation. The word “marsupial” derives from Latin and Greek for pouch.

 

The size of a lima bean, a newborn kangaroo begins life by crawling from the uterus to the pouch. The hind legs are still stumps, but forelegs are just big enough for the joey (baby) to crawl into the pouch. They live in the pouch, nourishing on the mother’s teats, for months.

 

Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo (rare)

Australia is a large continent, about the same size as the contiguous United States. It is also a land of extreme temperatures, and animal life can be tenuous. When conditions are favorable, kangaroos reproduce rapidly; during droughts they do not give birth, and the population drops.

Agile Wallaby

 

Another kangaroo challenge on this expansive and weather-extreme continent is finding food and water. For this they have evolved with special elastic tendons in their legs, allowing them to travel far distances without expending much energy. They are the only large mammal on earth to hop.

 

The red kangaroo, the largest species, comfortably hops at about 12-16 miles per hour (20-25 km/h). For short distances they can speed up to 43 mph (70 km/h).

Wallaby

 

Mareeba Rock Wallaby at Granite Gorge

 

Eastern Grey Kangaroo mob

 

I witnessed a comical scene with kangaroos once, while birding. There were three of us in a jeep, out in the middle of nowhere, half-hidden behind some brush. A mob (group) of large, grey kangaroos came hopping by and they didn’t know we were there. They were clipping along at a good speed. When they saw us, they stopped immediately, trying to redirect, but they were moving so fast that their momentum had them slipping and sliding in all directions.

 

They hop like a bunny, digest like a cow, and occupy only one continent. Hip hip for the hopper.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Check out my mystery novel, filled with Australian lore.

Ebook —  $4.99 at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Image by SnakeByte Studios

 

Kingfishers of the World

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

A bird widely distributed across the world today, the kingfisher inhabits almost every continent (map below). This successful and thriving species has fossils that date back 30-40 million years.

Forest Kingfisher, Australia

 

Contrary to their name, not all kingfishers catch and eat fish; some species prefer frogs, snakes, worms, and more. Wikipedia overview.

 

Green Kingfisher (female), Belize

 

Though sources differ, there are approximately 100 species of kingfishers. Largely tropical birds, the majority inhabit the Old World tropics and Australasia.

 

The species we see most in North America is the belted kingfisher,.   In Europe, the kingfisher most commonly seen is appropriately called: common kingfisher. There are 10 species in Australia, 18 in Africa.

 

Whenever I am walking around a lake or river and hear the characteristic ratcheting of the belted kingfisher, whatever I am doing, I look up and search for this avian friend.

 

Australia, Kakadu Nat’l. Park

Kingfishers have a disproportionately large head and long, pointy bill; with short legs and stubby tails. They range in size from 3.9 inches long (10 cm) (African dwarf kingfisher) to 18 inches (45 cm) (giant kingfisher).

 

Giant Kingfisher, Botswana

When you come across a kingfisher, they are often perched on a branch, scanning the ground or water below. One of the easier birds to spot, they have bright colors, a distinct shape, and a predictable behavior.

 

Kingfishers have excellent vision, including binocular and color; and are able to recognize water reflection and depth. Some species have eye membranes for water protection. The pied kingfisher, for example, has a bony plate that slides across the eye on water impact.

 

Pied Kingfisher, Botswana

 

Blue-winged Kookaburra with frog in mouth, Australia

 

Little Kingfisher, Australia

Once the kingfisher spots the prey, they swoop down and snatch it, return to the perch. Holding the prey in their strong bill, they beat it against the limb, breaking it down to a sizeable portion for consumption.

 

Sometimes kingfishers will hover above water and dive in for fish.

Green Kingfisher (male), Belize

 

A kingfisher discussion would not be complete without mentioning the laughing kookaburra. Although this kingfisher lives primarily in Australia, many of us all over the world have heard of it, from the song. “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree….”

 

Laughing Kookaburra, Australia

You can hear the great old children’s song, written by an Australian music teacher in 1934, here: the song

 

The real-life sound of a laughing kookaburra is truly wonderful. When I first heard it in a park in Sydney, it startled me.

 

Loud and cackling, it sounds nothing like laughter. You might think it was a monkey (or a wild beast) if you didn’t know better. Kookaburra call. 

Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Zambia

With a variety of specialized hunting skills, successful worldly range, and striking  colors, this bird is one that many of us have been celebrating our whole life.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Kingfisher range. Courtesy Wikipedia.