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.

Northern Calif. in March

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the emergence of spring has been an exhilarating and uplifting gift. Here are a few of the joys we are currently experiencing in Northern California.

In the valleys, the vineyards are bursting with wild mustard, and ornamental trees are flowering everywhere.

Wildflowers are just starting their show.

California poppies, our state flower, are tightly closed on rainy days and dotting the hillsides with bright orange on sunny days. Soon there will be huge patches of them.

It’s milder down in the valleys. Up on our mountain we’ve had snow and hail several times this week, along with many hours of driving rain and freezing temperatures.

Most of us are glad because more rain and snow now, mean less drought and wildfires in the fall.

After a day or two, the sun comes out and the sky once again turns bright blue.

This wild gooseberry plant on our property survived several bouts of hail this week.

Our grass is brown and crunchy for most of the year. But from January through about April, the grass is rich with chlorophyll. I find myself often staring appreciatively at blades of grass, the sun shining through their verdant membranes.

The oak woodlands are a fairyland. The deciduous oaks, in their mossy, lichen winter look, have slowly been budding for weeks. With more light in each day, the buds are growing plumper, and soon a leaf will pop out here and there.

Underneath the oaks, early wildflowers grace the earth, like buttercups and milkmaids.

Before daylight arrives, the frogs are singing their spring praises, and I often hear duetting great horned owls. For a morning person like me, who’s always up in the dark, this is a blissful greeting.

Daytime birds and creatures are also shifting with the new season. Brush rabbits are rewarded with nutrient-rich grass and weeds.

Bluebird pairs are checking out the just-cleaned nest boxes, and the titmice have switched from their winter calls to their spring love songs.

Some days there’s thick fog and hail, other days it’s mild and sunny, colorful flowers shine through it all, and the wildlife are just as excited as the humans for this new season. Hope is everywhere.

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.

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