Tropical Adventure in La Selva

One of the world’s most prominent tropical research centers is located in Costa Rica. A few years back, we had the pleasure and honor of being guests there, settling in with the rainforest creatures.

La Selva Biological Station is located in a lowland rainforest in northeastern Costa Rica. It is owned and operated by a consortium of about 50 universities and research institutions: Organization for Tropical Studies. They are dedicated to the study and preservation of the world’s tropical rainforests.

Although Costa Rica is a small country, it is home to more than 500,000 wildlife species making it “one of the 20 countries with the highest biodiversity in the world.” (Wikipedia) As a Central American country it is a natural land bridge, formed 3-5 million years ago, allowing the very different flora and fauna of the two continents, North and South America, to mix.

Today this biological research station hosts approximately 300 scientists from all over the world. Among the research labs, herbarium, classrooms and dormitories are a few stark rooms for laypeople visitors, where we stayed for four days.

More info: La Selva Wikipedia and Organization for Tropical Studies

Although our accommodation was a concrete cell, La Selva was one of our very favorite places to stay because we were in the center of a pristine rainforest teeming with wildlife. And to be surrounded by enthusiastic scholars of the rainforest, young and old, was a humbling joy.

Every day began when the howler monkeys and screeching parrots announced the dawn. Covered with DEET, long pants and long sleeves, Athena and I headed out into this humid, buggy rainforest each day. Interesting to note: of the 500,000 different wildlife species that Costa Rica hosts, 300,000 of them are insects.

This howler monkey was scarfing up the tree’s orange fruit.

Every day after our cafeteria breakfast, we would visit the tree with the two-toed sloth. S/he was always in the same tree, same limb, and always sleeping. And every day we stood under the tree craning our necks, binoculars and cameras ready, faithfully waiting for the sloth to move.

One lucky day it opened one eye and stretched a little. Of course we were both thrilled.

In La Selva we saw many birds and mammals, reptiles and insects. It is the nature of rainforests to have frequent rain; muddy and moldy ground; an abundance of ants, mosquitoes, gnats; and predators.

Much of the rainforest was dark, due to the thick canopy, but an occasional clearing offered photo opportunities.

We were pretty excited to find this three-toed sloth, a different species than the two-toed above. It was also asleep. They have an extremely slow metabolism, and are so slow they grow algae on their coat. If you look closely at this one below, you can see its furry arm is green-tinged…that’s algae.

There was a suspended pedestrian bridge where we spotted this big male Green Iguana. They are native in Costa Rica.

We also found a Little Tinamou near the bridge. Residents of Central and South America, they are very timid and rarely-seen birds.

We spent all day every day on the La Selva trails. When it got so hot we could no longer stand it, we would buy an ice cream bar at the gift shop and watch toucans and aracaris in the trees above.

Coatis were often around; a raccoon-like mammal seen in Central and South America, Mexico and the southwestern U.S.

Snakes are prevalent in this rainforest. This is the Bothriechis schlegelii, commonly known as the eyelash viper. It is venomous and aggressive, but was quite a distance from us.

There are 894 bird species in Costa Rica, more than all of the United States and Canada combined. Trogons are residents of tropical rainforests, this male was often outside our room.

Oropendolas are large songbirds in Central and South America, in the blackbird family. We saw two different species in La Selva.

Located relatively near to the equator, there were 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of nighttime. By 6 pm every night it was pitch-black.

We walked nearly a mile to the cafeteria, and after dinner the forest was black and very lively. We each wore a headlamp to light our way.

The first night we walked “home” we were intimidated. There were so many mysterious animal sounds, and lots of unidentifiable eye shine on the path beside us. We bravely kept walking.

A few paces later we discovered that what we thought was animal eye shine was actually lightning bugs twinkling in the humid air.

Each night we walked through this dark forest, hearing howler monkeys, watching swooping shadows of nighthawks and bats, serenaded by the tink-tink-tink of the “tink frog.”

By the end of our stay, the after-dinner walk had become a favorite adventure…but we were wise enough not to dally or deviate off the path.

One of my favorite night sounds, heard for miles, was the Great Tinamou’s loud and plaintive song. This is a recording (below) made in La Selva; you can also hear the cacophony of rainforest creatures.

Sound recording of Great Tinamou

On our last day, we had several hours between check-out and when our transport van arrived. Athena had a target species she wanted to photograph: the strawberry poison-dart frog. A student had told us where he’d consistently found them.

That day I would perform one of my most sacrificial photography-assistant tasks ever.

We found the grassy patch the student had described. It had an underlayer of squishy water, and was covered with fallen banana leaves and rotted logs. Because the frogs are small, smaller than your thumb, they vanish quickly in the debris.

We discovered if I walked out ahead, the vibration startled them to hop, exposing their bright tiny bodies, and then Athena would swoop in with her camera. The only problem was that every time I took a step, a cloud of a hundred mosquitoes poofed up around my ankles.

But we forged on, bent at the waist, scanning the grass and debris, enduring the mosquitoes and waiting for this tiny frog to pop up out of the detritus.

We found a few.

It would look like this at first…

… and then she would zoom in and click.

Their bright coloration advertises to birds and other predators that they are toxic. Are they toxic to humans? Yes, but only if you touch them. While the poison-dart frog wasn’t a problem, those mosquitoes made a hearty meal out of me.

I’m glad I could share with you this magnificent research station and our tropical adventure. The nice thing is, dear reader, you went through all of this rainforest and escaped every single mosquito.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Sacramento Valley Winter Migration

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

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

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

Pacific Flyway Wikipedia

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

More info: Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Songbirds abound, like this western meadowlark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Waterfowl Flyways in the United States. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Berries and Birds

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

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

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

Then in January the feasting begins.

Every year is different depending on rain and temperatures.

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

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

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

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

That day will be like the circus coming to town.

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

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

You can see the tongue on this cedar waxwing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sacred cycle of life.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Gift of Cranes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cranes are monogamous. More info: Cranes Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Maui Moments

It’s this time of year that I often get the call of Hawaii. It’s not a phone call or a text, but the Aloha spirit, reaching out, whispering of the warm ease and sweet fragrance, sea breezes and lapping waves.

No trip to Hawaii this winter, it’s not a safe or wise time to travel. I’ve put that call on hold. But when it’s time, I’ll be back to Maui, one of my favorite islands in America’s 50th state.

You can google Maui activities and come up with hundreds of ways to spend your time, below are a few of my favorites.

The second-largest of the Hawaiian Islands, Maui rose up from the sea in the form of two shield volcanoes. Today the island is two mountains: West Maui and Haleakala. They are old volcanoes and dormant.

My favorite thing about Maui in winter is the humpback whales. They’re everywhere.

From December through April, up to 10,000 humpbacks migrate to Maui from Alaska, to breed. The water is warm and shallow–good conditions for birthing and avoiding deep-water predators.

You can spot whales just about anywhere, evident by the exhalation breath spraying from their blowholes.

Whales have been migrating here for centuries. Lahaina, a city on the west coast of Maui, was a lively center for the global whaling industry in the 1800s.

These days whale-watching is the big attraction on Maui, and harpooning is out. An exciting way to spend the day is on a whale-watching boat, cruising the waters looking for whales, and waiting for that special moment when they breach.

Snorkeling is great fun, too. A good map of the island (published by University of Hawaii Press) will yield hundreds of suggestions for good snorkeling beaches, and is helpful for bypassing some of the more web-linked popular tourist spots.

This bay, below, is off the radar. We had to trek through some overgrowth to get to it, and the beach is not sand, it’s rocks. But under that water we found butterflyfish, parrotfish, goatfish, tangs, triggerfish, wrasse and more. Left center in this photo are three dots. Those are the only other snorkelers. That, to me, is paradise.

Sea turtles bob around, and, if you’re lucky, you might hear the singing of the humpbacks underwater. We did.

This spotted dove joined us on the beach.

Birds on the Hawaiian Islands are either native or introduced. Natives are the prize for birders, but rare; most are introduced, they arrived on the islands in numerous ways centuries ago.

It is interesting to see the array of introduced birds in the lowlands, but it is absolutely thrilling to go to the mountains and find some of the rare, native birds.

Introduced, non-native birds in the lowlands are bright and exotic. Hotel and resort grounds, residential backyards, and parking lots are festive with them.

Introduced lizards, like this green anole, thrive in ornamental landscapes.

But if you want to see what the Real Maui looks like, you have to leave behind the warm temperatures and sea frolics of the lowlands, and head up to the higher elevations.

We never go to Maui without at least one, preferably two, day-trips to Haleakala. From the west coast, where we usually stay, it takes 2-3 hours to reach the summit.

The farther you drive away from the tourist towns, the more Hawaiian culture you will find. Fruit stands brimming with papayas and guava and homemade banana bread, school kids getting off the bus, local life.

Then, as you ascend Haleakala, you come to overlooks with views over the whole island–land and sea. If you scan the sea with binoculars, you will see a whale spout or two in the distance.

About 75% of the island of Maui is Haleakala…that’s how big the mountain is. The tallest peak: 10,023 feet (3,055 m).

One of our favorite Haleakala places to go is Hosmer Grove. We have spent many rain-drenched hours searching for rare, prized native forest birds in this thicket, below, in Haleakala National Park.

Inside that mass of tangled trees we were rewarded with sightings of several native birds, two shown here. They have the curved bills to draw nectar from flowers.

At Haleakala’s summit are incredible overviews of this sacred mountain and its cinder cones.

Only a few plants, birds, and insects live on the summit with its harsh conditions and volcanic slopes.

Just a few virtual moments in some of your favorite places are a pleasant reminder that we have a marvelously diverse planet, and many more adventures await us.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Map of Hawaii highlighting Maui.svg
Hawaiian Islands, Maui in red. Courtesy Wikipedia.

A Great Day at Point Reyes

I had the pure joy of spending the day at Point Reyes last week. It is a National Seashore park on a peninsula that juts out into the Pacific Ocean in Northern California. One of my favorite spots in the whole world.

Even though we only covered a small part of this vast park, we were greeted by an exciting cast of characters.

The first friend we met was a coyote. Canis latrans was far back in a field at first, just a dot on the horizon. It seems more often than not, when we see a wild mammal they are heading away from us. But for a refreshing change, this coyote was coming closer.

S/he was moving quickly, a steady gait with occasional sniffing stops.

We used the car as a blind and the coyote came relatively close, didn’t even notice us.

We watched appreciatively for about ten minutes. The coyote cocked its head to the side, keenly listening to the rustle of underground rodents.

Then it pounced on something, and instantly came up with prey–bigger than a mouse, and dark. Probably a mole. With a few jerks of the head, the coyote ate the mole and continued on its way.

Usually there is long grass in this field, and a large herd of cattle; not much going on. But this fine day we hit it lucky with the mown grass and hunting wildlife easily visible. The field had been recently mowed, stirring up insects and rodents, drawing in predators.

A great blue heron was busy in the grassy field, and ravens landed frequently. California quail were scurrying about, white-crowned sparrows were in abundance.

Down by the pond, a black-tailed deer quietly chewed.

A Wilson’s snipe even made an appearance. They spend the winter here.

Further down the road we came upon this bobcat. Just like the coyote, its grass-colored coat blended into the terrain, but didn’t slip our notice.

Point Reyes has a tule elk reserve, it’s the only national park unit where tule elk can be found. The population is currently thought to be averaging about 420 individuals.

We had seen the tule elk here dozens and dozens of times, and knew it was rather late in the day to see them. Usually they move far back into the hills by late afternoon.

But again we hit it lucky, and saw about a dozen individuals. We knew where to look. They were distant at first, about the size of a grain of rice.

A group of females, a harem, were on a ridge grazing. They were molting, growing their winter coats.

Just behind the elk harem, a male Northern Harrier was kiting, i.e., flying in place, hovering. Hunting.

Out in the distance, the Pacific Ocean reached to the horizon. A long stretch of sea, a separate world of its own rhythms.

The briny scent, the incoming fog, the gathering storm clouds and the glory of safe, fresh air calmed our frayed nerves.

Despite the election tension, the Covid surges, and the park’s recent 5,000 burned acres, there was nothing really different here. Turns out, that was just what we were looking for.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Courtesy Wikipedia

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.

The Phoebes

In the Americas we have three species of phoebes, a songbird in the flycatcher family. Recently a Black Phoebe has been regularly visiting my window, reminding me of the sweet beauty of phoebes.

We have two of the three phoebe species in Northern California year-round: Black and Say’s. The third species, the Eastern Phoebe, lives in the central and eastern part of the continent, never comes to California.

There are Old World flycatchers and Tyrant flycatchers, hundreds of species across the globe. Phoebes are Tyrant flycatchers, genus Sayornis.

Every summer we have migrant flycatchers nest and breed on our property, then around August they fly south. Once the migrant flycatchers have left, the Black Phoebe arrives, spends the winter here. Usually it’s just one individual…and that individual is here now.

Black Phoebes are commonly seen in their range. They especially like to be near water, and are often seen pumping their tails.

Being flycatchers, phoebes eat insects. They have an endearing way of hunting. From their perch, they chase after the insect in a seemingly random flight—swoops and half-circles, zigs and zags.

In the bird world we use the verb “sally” to describe flycatcher flight.

I love to watch flycatchers for this. They look a little loony, because invariably you cannot see the insect and it looks like the bird is losing its balance, or sanity, or both. But of course the bird is not mixed up at all, it’s successfully hunting.

The second North American phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, lives in the western half of the continent. They live in grasslands and are accordingly different shades of tan, brown, and gold, sometimes peach depending on the light.

The third North American phoebe is the Eastern Phoebe, found in the continent’s middle and east. Due to the cold winters, Eastern Phoebes have a large migrating range.

Sayornis phoebe -Owen Conservation Park, Madison, Wisconsin, USA-8.jpg
Eastern Phoebe Photo: John Benson. Courtesy Wikipedia

All three phoebe range maps are displayed below.

I don’t get to see Eastern Phoebes too often, so here are two links from bird-loving blogger friends who live east of the Rockies:

Eastern Phoebe at Photos by Donna

Eastern Phoebe at H.J. Ruiz-Avian 101

We see phoebes perched most of the time. Even when they sally out for an insect, they then return to the same perch.

Strip away all the facts, and the real enchantment comes every day when the Black Phoebe comes to visit. I hear the chipping sound and come to the window and wait. Lately Phoebe has been perching on the railing of our deck. If I stay inside, the bird will start catching insects close to the house, so I use the house as a blind and watch from inside.

These have not been the easiest days lately for anyone. So a cheerful Black Phoebe at my window brightens the whole day.

I say, “Hi Phoebe, so nice to see you again.”

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander except Eastern Phoebe.

Phoebe range maps below. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org.

Range Map for Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe Range Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org

Range Map for Say's Phoebe
Say’s Phoebe Rang Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org

Range Map for Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe Range Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org

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.

White-crowned Sparrow

A commonly found bird in North America, the white-crowned sparrow is anything but common…it is extraordinary. I recently watched one in my friends’ garden sipping water under an apple tree, and was reminded of the uniqueness of this songbird.

Except for Florida and parts of the southern east coast, they can be found across America, Canada, and Mexico. Although we have them year-round on the California coast, the white-crowned sparrow migrates in many parts of the continent. Range map at end.

They are a dapper bird, as you can see, but it is their song that sets them apart.

As a brief primer, I remind you that every songbird species has their own song–a series of sounds like call notes, warnings, scoldings, for example; and in addition, a song. The song is generally used for mating and territorial purposes, and is instantly recognizable to bird enthusiasts. In fact, that is how we often identify birds when we cannot see them.

I can stand in a forest or a parking lot, and know exactly what species of avian friends are in my presence, without opening my eyes. It took me roughly five years to accomplish bird identification by sound. If I am outside my home state or country, it takes more study.

But for white-crowned sparrows, the game is different.

The songs of white-crowned sparrows are one of the most studied in all of ornithology, due to the unusual variations in dialect.

This one species, which has five sub-species, has different song variations, or dialects, depending on where they are. Just like humans have different dialects depending on location, so do the white-crown sparrows.

I find it especially thrilling to travel to different parts of the continent and hear different white-crowned sparrow songs.

Males do most of the singing in this species, though there are singing females that have been noted. They learn their original song, in their first two or three months of life, from their natal neighborhood. Then they may migrate, and have offspring, and the new song distribution begins. There are many elaborate theories, studies, and graduate papers about the different dialects.

White-crowned Sparrow info

Here are four different recordings of a white-crowned sparrow song that I found in xeno-canto.org. You can hear how different the songs are (click on link, then on red and gray arrow).

Recorded in Manitoba, Canada

Recorded in Alaska, Denali NP, USA

Recorded in San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA

Recorded in Mississippi, USA

The song we hear in the Bay Area is recorded above, and that’s what I hear outside my window. I have been hearing it as I composed this post. We have a juvenile on the grounds, who only sings half of the song…he’s still learning.

The appearance of a white-crowned sparrow differs slightly depending again on where you are, most notably the bill color. All photos here were taken in California, the nuttalli sub-species.

It is difficult to differentiate the sub-species by sight alone, because the variations are slight. These minute details are what nerdy birders (like me) like to stand around discussing.

Immatures look different than adults, with brown and gray head stripes, as you can see below.

With their handsome black-and-white-striped plumage and clear, resonating song, I find their place on this earth especially sweet.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander

Zonotrichia leucophrys map.svg
Range map White-crowned Sparrow. Orange=breeding, Yellow=migration, Blue=non-breeding, Purple=Year-round. Courtesy Wikipedia.