The Beat of Summer

Black-headed Grosbeak (male)

Although today is officially the first day of summer, this whole month leading up to it has been a wild, thriving bonanza in Northern California. By 5:30 dawn is underway and the cacophony of birdsong has already begun.

 

Slightly inland, temperatures usually range in the Fahrenheit 90s  (32-37 C.), with an occasional day of cooling, coastal fog.

 

The hot temperatures and dry chaparral habitat bring out the Western fence lizards, skinks, and snakes. This year we have had the pleasure of many lizards and skinks.

 

Skink, California

 

One day a confused lizard somehow got into the house. I came in and found it trying to climb our living room steps; fortunately the carpet was impeding progress. I coaxed the lizard, an alligator lizard, into a clean milk bottle and delivered him back outdoors.

 

Northern Alligator Lizard, California

 

The birds take advantage of these long days. Many species have chicks in the nest, and industriously use the maximum daylight hours to snap up insects and worms for their nestlings.

 

Some birds are finishing their nesting like the titmice, violet-green swallows, and western bluebirds. Others, like the Pacific-slope flycatchers, are already feeding a second brood before they head back south.

 

Oak Titmouse, California

 

Violet-green swallow, California

 

Juvenile Anna’s hummingbirds have been off the nest for about a month now, and are easy to spot because they zoom up to everything with defiant purpose, even if it’s inanimate like my cup of tea. Adults don’t waste their energy like that, they have to be alert and vigilant to defend their territory.

 

Anna’s hummingbird (adult male), California. Can you see his tongue?

 

Steller’s jays, a handsome and irreverent bird, also have juveniles right now and not a day goes by without at least one squawk-fest. I watch them. They squawk about nothing. I think they’re learning to voice.

 

Steller’s Jay, adult, California

 

The yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) plants have unfurled thousands of tiny white flowers these past few weeks.  I’ve read that the nectar tastes bitter, but the shrubs are loaded with butterflies, sometimes six or eight at once–all sizes and colors.

 

Western Tiger Swallowtail on Yerba Santa

 

Bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax), also a native, is more prolific this year than any other year in my 18 here.  Every single plant burned to the ground in the 2017 wildfires; but since then we cleaned up the blackened stubs, and after a rain they earnestly began sprouting leaves. With fire-resistant rhizomes, they grew a full grassy bouquet, and recently each plant extended a tall green stem with one club-like flower.

 

Bear Grass, California, June 2019

 

Four species of flycatchers, the blue-gray gnatcatchers and black-throated gray warblers are all here for the summer, calling from the trees reminding me the lively summer has arrived.

 

Residents like the finches, nuthatches, woodpeckers, wrens, vireos and raptors are also busy nesting. Juncos built a nest under our front steps. This week I observed a flicker nesting in a tree snag.

 

But it’s the black-headed grosbeaks who steal the show. Big bird with bold colors, a flash of white in flight; and the most heavenly melodious song reverberating throughout the day.

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

 

Pheucticus melanocephalus are here only a short time. The males arrive in April, the females follow, and the spring activities begin. Right now we have immature and adult grosbeaks flying in every direction, sometimes five or six at the feeder at once. By August they’ll be gone.

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (female), California

 

We keep the feeders filled with their favorite seed (black oil sunflower); and the water trays are brimming with refreshment for the hot, parched days.

 

So many goals I have, but none so easy to know or do as keeping the grosbeaks happy.

 

At dinnertime the jackrabbit comes in to feed on grass and weeds; and the immature grosbeaks continue their plea that has lasted all day: a wavy whine, feed me, feed me.

 

Black-tailed Jackrabbit, California (Lepus californicus)

 

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (immature), California

 

It’s not until 9:00 that the sun sets and the day quiets down…only for the night creatures to begin their watch. First the bats come out, frenetic silhouettes disappearing into the night. The frogs start their chorus, the crickets their stridulating chirping; and by the time it’s totally dark, the occasional deep hoots of a great horned owl lull me to sleep.

 

The force of life, the beat of summer. Happy summer to my northern hemispheric friends.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Pacific Chorus Frog, California

 

Range Map for Black-headed Grosbeak

Range map for black-headed grosbeak. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org.

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Two Night Drives

Black and White Owl, Belize

It was the same territory we had traversed every day in this Belizean rainforest, but a very different world opened up once the jungle night unfolded.

 

Night drives involve a vehicle with a strong spotlight hooked up to the battery, and one or two guides who drive and spot. Athena and I stood in the back of a pick-up truck–hanging on, dodging palm fronds, and swatting at mosquitoes.

 

Baird’s Tapir, adult female, Belize

Tapirs were a great find, and one of our favorite adventures of the whole trip. More about that: Tapir Time.

 

But we came upon so many other creatures too.

 

Mottled Owl, Belize

 

Owls and bats are a big draw on night drives, and the Belizean forest did not disappoint. I’m always happy to see bats because it means there is a balance in the ecosystem. We saw about 20 individual bats on our two night drives. The lights on the vehicle brought them in, for the insects, then they’d spin away into the black oblivion.

 

We spotted this spectacled owl with a snake. When we drove off, we watched the owl carry the Fer-de-lance snake, highly venemous, back to a palm tree where we suspected there was a nest.

 

Spectacled Owl with Fer-de-lance snake

 

Owls and bats are not the only nocturnal flyers. There were also common pauraques and northern potoos, bird species in the nightjar family (Caprimulgiformes).

 

Pauraques were especially prevalent in this rainforest. When they aren’t flying, they are on the ground, camouflaged in leaf litter; this parent was hiding a little one.

 

Common Parauque adult sitting on top of chick

 

They feed on insects, and were attracted to the constant bug flurry around the lodge’s landscape lights. I heard them every night, so loud that sometimes they woke me up.

 

Sound of pauraque in night forest. 

 

At one point, the driver spotted a wild cat called a margay. We had a two-second look at it before he or she disappeared into the forest. Camouflage spots, quick and stealthy…gone in a flash.

 

Margay. Photo: Brian Gratwicke, courtesy Wikipedia.

They are small, the size of an ocelot, native to Belize, and nocturnal. Their populations are declining, so we were happy to see this rare wild cat.

 

There were large moths and small; beady eyes looking out of the tangled trees; lots of croaking frogs. We came upon a raccoon who was hunting high in a tree; and deer in their nighttime mode, frozen in place by the spotlight. This mammal emerged out of the shadows and it took a few seconds to see it was a tapir.

 

Tapir (center) coming out of the jungle shadows

 

Every day we saw cattle in a pasture on the edge of the forest. At dawn we were there chasing parrots and toucans, while the cattle unabashedly stared at us. When we came back at night, their shining eyes were still staring at us.

 

Cattle in pasture

 

One night we were walking on the lodge grounds when we heard a plop, and found this cane toad, a native.

 

Cane toad, Rhinella marina

 

It’s cooler at night, and the moving vehicle creates a wind that feels luxurious after a long, sweaty day. But the best part of the night drives is seeing this mysterious nocturnal world come alive.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander except margay.

Baird’s Tapir, juvenile and mother, Belize

 

 

Long-tailed Birds

Resplendent Quetzal (male), Costa Rica

 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher (male), Belize

Every once in a while I come across a bird with a spectacularly long tail. It happened last month with this Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Belize. When the bird flies, his long tail ripples gracefully in the wind.

 

One day long ago, while I was still in birding classes, I was standing in my mother’s backyard, a suburb near Dallas not far from fields. I looked up and saw a beautiful bird on the telephone lines with the longest tail I had ever seen in my life. Later I was to learn it was the scissor-tailed flycatcher, not uncommon in Texas.

 

And since then, I have had the pleasure of collecting many beautiful images of birds with lengthy tails.

 

We were flying down a Mexican highway in a cab one day, when we spotted this jay on the lines. Screeched to a halt.

 

Black-throated Magpie Jay (male), Mexico

 

In some long-tailed bird species, only the male has the long tail; in other species, like motmots, both genders have the long tail.

 

There are numerous evolution theories as to why a species has a long tail. Most theories posit that the male’s long tail is a signal to the female of good breeding foundation.

 

Some species have cord-like streamers, whereas others, like my favorite the resplendent quetzal, have more of a double ribbon for a tail.

 

Motmots, a colorful Neotropic bird, have long tails shaped like racquets.

 

Turquoise-browed Motmot, Costa Rica

 

This hummingbird has a racquet-tail too.

Booted Racket-tail Hummingbird (male), Peru

 

One of the most striking birds on the planet, the resplendent quetzal male has a long tail that sparkles in the sunlight. For an hour we watched this male in a Costa Rican mountain rainforest eating avocadoes. Then when he was satiated, he flew on.

 

We instinctively ran after him, enchanted by the magic, the beauty.

 

Undulating behind this showy bird, the iridescent tail shimmered and flowed in the most natural ribbon-like spectacle. Eventually the bird disappeared into the forest.

 

Resplendent Quetzal (male), Costa Rica

 

In the red-billed tropicbird, the male’s tail streamer is slightly longer than the female’s, about 4.7 inches (12 cm).

 

We once went to a breeding colony of tropicbirds on the island of Little Tobago in the West Indies. The tropicbirds were competing with frigatebirds over food, and the guide told us that sometimes a frigatebird would pluck at a tropicbird’s long streamers, try to pull it out.

 

Red-billed Tropicbird, Little Tobago Island, West Indies

 

Birds that wear party streamers for tails:  they make you want to sing and dance and go a little wild.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Indian Peacock in Texas

 

Spring Wildlife Rituals

Jackrabbit

Northern California is now about a month or two into spring. The hillsides are emerald, wildflowers abound. Almost every summer migrant bird species has arrived; and all the animals have begun their spring rituals.

Wild Douglas iris, California

Violet-green swallows, black-headed grosbeaks, and Pacific-slope flycatchers have arrived from Mexico and Central America. They will breed here, then leave in autumn, hopefully with a new brood.

 

Violet-green Swallow, male, California

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (male); a highly anticipated spring arrival

 

Pacific-slope flycatcher adult singing of life

Additional bird species have also arrived, in their usual order, some earlier in spring, some later. Flycatchers, tanagers, warblers, gnatcatchers, and more.

 

The violet-green swallows, oak titmice, and western bluebirds always vie for the nest boxes. Our human spring ritual is to clean out the boxes; their avian spring ritual is to squabble over them. It makes no difference how many boxes we offer, the territory battles somehow have to occur.

 

They cling to their real estate amidst a swirl of swooping competitors, and eventually it all gets settled out.

Violet-green swallow on nest box, California

 

Western Bluebird on nest box, California

 

A few of the reptiles are starting to show their faces. They come out of hibernation on warm days: look around, absorb the sun, do their dances, then return to their burrows when the evening starts it’s chill.

 

This week I saw about five western fence lizards

Western Fence Lizard, California

and at least ten skinks.

Skink, California

 

Twice we found snake tracks in powdery dirt, but no snake. It looked like a wooden pencil was dragged through the dirt. The snakes will linger longer when the earth has warmed up more, rattle at us if we unknowingly get too close.

 

This is a rattlesnake in our front yard from a previous summer; they keep our rodent population under control. That’s a big one.

Western Rattlesnake, sub-species Northern Pacific; Calif. Rattle (white) at far right end of tail, 6-8 rattles.

 

Then there are the frogs, Pacific chorus frogs. For the last three months they have been in full symphonic mode at night, singing at the neighbor’s pond, each male singing loudly–the louder the better–to attract a mate.

 

They require water for laying eggs, so the mating rituals begin at the pond’s edge, with the male filling up his throat with air, then croaking and crooning.

 

Starting in late January, through February and March, I sat in the dark living room with the window open, listening appreciatively, for as long as I could stand the frigidity. The sound came in thick waves, swelling, and swelling more.

 

Now there’s warm air coming through the night window, and the cacophony has dwindled, signaling that most mating has occurred.

 

Meanwhile, the female lays 400-750 eggs. They are jelly-like beads, in clumps that stick to the reeds and twigs. The frogs have to lay so many because it is tasty caviar to most other wildlife.

 

Soon the tadpoles will sprout little legs and gradually their entire bodies will transform from water-swimming pollywogs to land-hopping frogs.

Tadpole on a leaf…

Tadpole with frog legs

then frog.

Pacific Chorus Frog, California

The adult frog is very small, about two inches long (5 cm). They keep our spiders and insects in check.

 

Warm days, growing longer. New life abounds in many different forms…reminding us that miracles are everywhere.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) and Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly, Angel Island, CA

 

Earth Day Hero: Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson. Photo from Rachel Carson The Writer at Work by Paul Brooks.

 

Pair of Brown Pelicans, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, FL

Rachel Carson changed the world when her book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962. At the time of writing, agriculture was accelerating to new heights with the advancement of synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, and pesticides.

 

The pesticide DDT had been heralded during WWII for controlling malaria, typhus, body lice, and bubonic plague; Paul Herman Muller had been awarded a Nobel prize for it.

 

From the 1950s on, DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane) was used extensively–40,000 tons a year, worldwide. Especially effective in eliminating mosquitoes, it was liberally sprayed from airplanes and trucks, on crops and neighborhoods.

 

Insect-borne diseases, they said, would be a thing of the past.

Mosquito control, Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, 1945. The sign says “DDT, Powerful Insecticide, Harmless to Humans.” Bettmann/Corbis

 

As a child in the 1960s, I clearly remember the excitement of the “spray truck” when it regularly came down our street in Wisconsin every summer. We lived near a marsh and mosquitoes were rampant.

 

All the little kids, including me, would go running out of their homes chasing after the spray truck, as if it was an ice cream truck.

 

We would run with delight into the billowing clouds of DDT.

 

Image result for spray truck mosquitoes 1960s


DDT truck, 1960s, from pininterest.com

This is difficult to imagine now, all these decades later; but is a good indication of the level of ignorance then toward chemicals, pesticides, and insecticides.

Osprey, Ding Darling NWR, FL

While many scientists and industrial chemical companies were earnestly manufacturing dozens of new chemical cocktails, Rachel Carson, along with other scientists in the minority, began addressing the potential dangers of these unknown concoctions.

 

In the book she described how chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphorus insecticides, like DDT, altered cellular structure in living beings.

 

The powerful chemical industry spent a quarter million dollars to discredit her research and malign her character. Still, she continued to present her scientific findings and medical interviews, citing numerous cases of human illnesses and fatalities from DDT and its derivatives. Tumors in laboratory rats.

Double-crested Cormorant, Las Gallinas Ponds, CA

American Robin, CA

 

The publication of the book stirred the nation.

 

The title, Silent Spring, predicted the silencing of birds and wildlife under this insidious chemical barrage. Communities organized grassroots efforts demanding the discontinuance of the aerial spraying in their neighborhoods. Then-president John F. Kennedy responded to the book by launching federal and state investigations.

 

During this period, the bald eagle population, America’s symbol of strength and freedom, was rapidly declining. Other birds were also affected: pelicans, peregrine falcons, and more.

Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR, California

All the bird species shown in these photos had populations that were dwindling or troubled due to DDT and its derivatives. The residue was in the land and water, contaminating insects, fish, worms, prey. Calcium metabolism was interrupted by DDT, eggs were too thin to reproduce subsequent generations.

 

Rachel Carson’s prediction of a silent spring was manifesting.

American White Pelican flock cooperative feeding, Las Gallinas Ponds, CA

 

Peregrine Falcon, CA

 

Western Gull, Bodega Bay, CA

 

After a decade of much controversy, DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972. Many other countries, like Canada and across Europe, discontinued its use, too.

 

During the writing of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer; then it metastasized. She managed to complete and publish the book, and motivate the country and the world into grasping the dangers arising from improper pesticide use and the need for better pesticide controls.

 

She died of breast cancer a year after this photo was taken, at the age of 56.

Rachel Carson at a Senate subcommittee hearing on pesticides in 1963. Credit United Press International courtesy New York Times.

Rachel Carson at a Senate subcommittee hearing on pesticides in 1963. Credit. United Press International courtesy New York Times

 

The story of DDT does not end here. But for today, let’s give Rachel Carson a bow for all the people and animals who survive, thanks to her.

 

Another of the many Earth Day heroes we can salute for their attentiveness, tenacity, and soulful work in making the earth a safer, sweeter place.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Bird photos by Athena Alexander.

 

American White Pelican, Las Gallinas, CA

 

The Glory of Wildflowers

Wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis) and oaks

We’re having a profusion of wildflowers in California. This year we  had a lot of rain along with cool days and nights–a good formula for wildflowers.

 

I found an enchanting hillside of native lupine on my walk this week.

 

This is the genus that is famously called bluebonnets in Texas. Lady Bird Johnson, the hero of wildflowers, brought nature-loving Americans to revere this wildflower.

Lupine (Lupinus albifrons) and oaks

 

Lupine (Lupinus albifrons)

I have seen several hillsides of it this week. They tend to thrive in degraded soils, like after a fire or on heavily grazed land.

 

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

 

In California our wildflowers were given the title of “Super Bloom” this year, beckoning hordes of people creating traffic jams, and the accidental crushing of flowers as folks positioned for selfies.

 

I avoid those scenes, and gravitate to the quiet spots; have found hundreds and hundreds of beautiful sprightly flowers this spring.

Shooting Stars, Dodecathion (2017)

 

Some wildflowers are native, and some are not. In California, two examples of native wildflowers are the lupine and poppies seen here.

 

Non-native wildflowers, like the wild mustard  in the first photo, spread uncontrollably, and can pose a problem because they squeeze out the natives.

 

But invasives can be attractive to some creatures.

American Goldfinch, Pt. Reyes, on wild radish

 

There’s something really special about finding native wild lilies. They are usually just a few sparse stems in the forest undergrowth.

 

Some years they don’t come up, or get munched on by wildlife. But other years they emerge from the earth in full bliss. They poke their little heads out after the rains stop, and day after day they grow, first their stems and leaves, then the flower heads. Then one day they’ve completely arrived.

 

Redwood lily, Lilium rubescens

 

Mission Bells

 

When I come across a wild lily, I am uplifted all day. I plan when I can return to see it again, before its short life is over.

 

This year is the second spring after northern California’s destructive wildfires. Many of the former spring lilies and other species have vanished. The lily photos above are from earlier years.

 

But even after massive wildfires, the earth keeps growing. Instead of the lilies this year, we have an abundance of Indian Warriors. They are more prolific than ever before. Here’s a close-up of this ruby delight, but with a warning, a glimpse of the big picture.

 

Indian Warrior (Pedicularis densiflora)

 

Indian Warrior (Pedicularis densiflora)

 

In less damaged areas, natives like buttercups grace the oak hillsides.

Buttercups (Ranunculus californicus) and oaks

 

Wild Douglas iris look like the iris you find in a floral shop. They are short-stemmed, however, and compete with the grass.

Iris (Iris douglasiana) in grass

 

Lots of rain means lots of tall grass, so the secret to finding wildflowers is getting to them before the grass gets too long. Once the grass overshadows the flowers it blocks out the sun, and the wildflowers fade away. This is the only predictable aspect of wildflowers.

 

I enjoyed a hike at Angel Island this past weekend, where patches of blue forget-me-nots reminded me not to forget them.

Blue Forget-me-nots (Myosotis) with Oxalis (yellow) and Miner’s Lettuce (white)

 

Our native state flower, the California poppy, still remains one of my favorite wildflowers. I find their brightness infectious, cheerful, and unlike many spring wildflowers, the poppies stick around for months.

 

California poppies, Eschscholzia californica (2015)

Eschscholzia californica have proliferated so much this spring that it can be seen from space!

 

This photo was taken in southern California via satellite.

DigitalGlobe satellites were able to capture this image of a superbloom in California's Walker Canyon on March 19, 2019.

DigitalGlobe satellites captured this image of a super bloom in California’s Walker Canyon on March 19, 2019. Courtesy space.com.

 

Sweet wildflowers bring a touch of natural beauty and a gentle reminder to pause and appreciate the wonder.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Elegant Clarkia, Clarkia unguiculata

 

Hummingbird Fest

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica, Central America

There are approximately 330 species of hummingbirds in the world, they’re found only in the Americas. One of the most remarkable birds on this planet, they are in the Trochilidae family.

 

Some hummingbirds migrate, some do not.

 

In northern California, my home, we have one resident species, the Anna’s Hummingbird, who stays all year long…even when there’s snow.

Anna’s Hummingbird, Northern California

 

Fortunately, we also have the divine pleasure of observing several of the migrating species passing through in spring and autumn. And in tropical countries, there are numerous species any time of the year.

 

They wear a kaleidoscope of colors, and some are especially dazzling. Many have prism-like cells in the top layer of feathers that, through pigmentation and refraction, give the effect of iridescence.

White-bellied Woodstar, Peru

 

Some also have punk hairdos and psychedelic markings, like this male tufted coquette.

Tufted Coquette, male, Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad

 

Not all hummingbirds have the word “hummingbird” in their name. I guess after trying to name 330 different species, they ran out of words. By reading the names of each hummingbird in the photos here, you’ll see what I mean.

 

The booted racket-tail, below, is named for his racket-shaped tail and furry (orange) boots.

Booted racket-tail, Peru

 

Sparkling Violetear, Peru

 

Their unique flight skills out-perform all other birds. They move forwards, backwards, sideways, straight up, and are exquisite at hovering too.

Green Violetear Hummingbird, Costa Rica

 

Also, they have incredible speed. North American hummingbirds average about 53 wingbeats per second in normal flight.

Long-billed Hermit, Belize

 

They can dive at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, and average about 20-45 miles per hour in normal flight. They are named for the humming sound created by their fast-beating wings.

Woodnymph in rainforest stream, Costa Rica

 

With special retinas, they can see as they zoom. A hummingbird’s tongue is also noteworthy.

 

If you have good eyesight, binoculars or camera lenses, sometimes you can actually see the tongue extended outside the bill. You may notice how long it is.

Anna’s hummingbird (male) — notice his tongue, California

 

Hummingbirds, and woodpeckers too, require long tongues to extract food. In the hummingbird’s case, they use their long, forked tongue to reach into tubular flowers for nectar.

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Belize

 

A recent discovery has revealed that both parts of the forked tongue hold tiny tubes. When the bird unfurls its tongue into the nectar vessel, the tubes open up, draw the nectar, and then lock shot, capturing the liquid for the hummingbird to ingest.

 

The hummingbird’s tongue is so long that it wraps around the inside of the skull.  They have a special bone, called the hyoid apparatus, that guides the tongue to reach over, behind, and under the eye.

Image result for tongue in skull hummingbird

Diagram courtesy of animalia-life.club

We once had a hummingbird nectar feeder that adhered by a suction cup to the window. By standing inside the building and looking out the window at the feeder, we could see the hummingbirds mere inches away. As the bird would drink sugar-water from the feeder, you could actually see the crown of the head pulsate where the tongue was operating.

 

There are more astonishing facts:  Wikipedia Hummingbird.

Male Snowcap Hummingbird, Costa Rica

 

They fly like a bullet, glitter like sequins, and dance in the flowers — an avian work of art.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Chestnut-breasted Coronet pair, Peru

Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (1899). Courtesy Wikipedia.