Mexico Birding

Mexican Parrotlets

We came upon these Mexican Parrotlets in a coffee field while birding in Mexico a few years ago. One of my favorite aspects of world birding is directly engaging with other lifestyles and communities.

 

Parrolets, Mexico. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Our guide didn’t drive, so he hired his friend Lupe, a taxi driver, and we had the most wonderful three days together.  Each day we met at the dark of dawn, spent the entire morning birding, parted for afternoon siesta, then met up again to bird in the cooler late afternoon and evening.

 

Northern Potoo, Mexico

 

 

People in photo, L to R: Lupe the taxi driver, Athena, Guide Armando with scope. Photo: Jet Eliot

 

Coffee berry worker starting his day, Mexico. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

We enjoyed several different boat rides, walked many fields and trails, spent time birding on the beaches and estuaries. The nearby town of San Blas is located on the Pacific coast and is a migratory hotspot for birds. We spotted over one hundred species in those three days.

 

Armando, our guide, liked to stop for fried pork rinds at curbside stands; and took us to a local outdoor food tent where lunch was  excellent food with made-to-order tortillas.

 

Armando and the boatman, Mexico. Photo: Athena Alexander

There’s nothing like travel to learn about our fellow humans, and birding is wonderful for the start of a common denominator.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.

Family boarding boat, San Blas, Mexico

 

Listening to Doves

Squatter Pigeon, Australia

Emerald Spotted Wood Dove, Zambia, Africa

Pied Imperial Pigeon, Australia

If you have ever listened to a dove, you know the sweet, gentle voice of peace. Seems like right now is a good time to relax into the peace of doves.

 

The bird that is classically associated with peace for centuries, doves and pigeons form  the family Columbidae. There are over 300 worldwide species. They live  everywhere except in extreme temperatures.

 

The terms “dove” and “pigeon” are often used interchangeably. Usually doves are smaller, and pigeons larger, but there are many scientific distinctions.

 

More information Columbidae

 

In North America, one of our most common doves is the mourning dove. It has several soft cooing vocalizations that add a mellow, repetitive coo-woo-woo to the air.

 

Mourning Dove, California

Mourning Dove Vocalization

They also have a soft, whistling wingbeat sound.

Mourning Dove Wingbeat Sound

So many times friends or co-workers have excitedly told me they heard an owl, only to find after we investigated further, that they were hearing a mourning dove. It is a muted sound, steady, with a slow, repeating call, and much like an owl.

 

Where I live in Northern California, we have a forest dove, the band-tailed pigeon. They do not have noticeable vocalizations, but the sanguine sight of their 25+ flocks synchronistically cruising over our valley is equally as calming.

Band-tailed Pigeon pair, California

Perched flock of band-tailed pigeons, California

 

The pigeons we see in cities, the domestic pigeon, are called rock doves. Sit on a bench in a city plaza and you can hear their cooing, like purring; the sun highlights their iridescent features.

Rock Dove visiting the San Francisco Hyatt

 

My favorite fruit dove, the Wompoo Fruit Dove, can be found hundreds of feet up in the Australian rainforest canopy eating figs and other fruit. I fell in love with its soothing wom-pooooo call.

 

Impossible to photograph, so high up, I give you an audio glimpse instead.

Woompoo Fruit Dove Vocalization

 

Another Australian rainforest dove.

Emerald Dove, Australia

 

Across the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii, the tender dove calls seamlessly blend into the fragrant air and tropical breezes.

Spotted Dove, Maui

Spotted Dove Vocalization

Zebra Dove Vocalization

We need more docile dove sounds in this world, and fortunately, they’re everywhere.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

White Rock Dove pair, Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, Oahu

 

Wildlife Visitors

Violet-green swallow, California

These photos reflect a few of the wildlife friends who have come to visit us in the past two weeks, as we continue to adhere to Covid-lockdown orders.

 

Numerous bird species that migrate here to breed join the year-round bird residents — all are breeding and nesting right now. It’s a very exciting time and every day the yard is filled with hundreds of avian friends.

California Quail, male, California’s state bird

We have lived here 19 years, on a rural two-acre property in Northern California, and have spent every day turning it into a wildlife parkland.

 

We were recently thrilled to see a pair of California quail finally return to breed on our property. Their populations perished in the 2017 wildlife fires; this spring they are back for the first time. As ground birds, they have to be very stealthy in their nesting; in a week, maybe two, we will see their chicks…if we are lucky.

 

Black-headed grosbeaks abound at our feeders. We heard the first chick this week. In another month or so, they will fly back to Mexico with their new broods.

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

 

A pair of house finches just successfully fledged three or four offspring this week.

House Finches (Calif.), male on L, female on R

 

It is only minutes after the birds have found their evening roost that we begin to see a bat or two coming in, swooping up insects. They are barely visible in the dusk landscape,  but I know where to look. They are busy all night long.

 

Our resident bats, the canyon bat, are small–smaller than an adult hand. This photo gives you a rare close-up view.

Canyon Bat, California

 

We see western fence lizards every day, which I love, and the snakes are out and about now too. We don’t see reptiles in the winter, too cold, but are always glad to see them in spring and summer.

 

This big gopher snake greeted us on a morning walk last month, on the road adjacent to our property. We watched quietly for a few minutes, until the tongue and raised head sensed us, and then s/he instantly vanished in the weeds.

Gopher Snake, California

 

Mammals recently recorded on our outdoor camera trap revealed a coyote, skunk, raccoon, bobcat, and gray fox.

Bobcat, California

 

The “critter cam” reveals how busy it gets here at night. The animals forage under the feeders for any leftover seeds, and always drink from the water trays now that the winter rains are over. All photos here have been taken on our property, but not by the critter cam.

 

Gray fox, California

 

During the day, mammals most seen are jackrabbits, gray squirrels, and chipmunks. Lately a newcomer has joined the fray, a brush rabbit.

Brush Rabbit, California

I am happy to report the brush rabbit is fitting in well. It must be roosting on the property somewhere, because it’s here daily now, grazing on the last bits of green grass that have not yet dried up.

 

I learned years ago that we have to make our own space. Thanks for joining me in our Peaceable Kingdom.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Anna’s Hummingbird, male, California

 

The Hummingbird Dive

Anna’s Hummingbird, male, California

Among the many extraordinary talents of the hummingbird, the male’s aerial dive is the most astounding of all. A courtship dance, the hummingbird dive is happening right now in the northern hemisphere.

 

It is an electrifying display, even to us mere humans.

 

This week in Northern California, I heard or saw it at least a dozen times every day. In colder areas, it probably hasn’t begun yet.

 

If there is a nectar feeder, it often starts while she’s feeding. Here he is (on the right) at our nectar feeder, impressing her with his iridescence.

 

Anna’s Hummingbird, female on the left, male on the right, California

 

Once he has her attention, he starts the dance. It usually lasts about 12 seconds.

 

Next, he flies straight up into the sky, and he keeps going higher and higher, until you barely see him.

 

He goes up about 100 feet (30 m).

 

Then he plummets, swoops down right in front of her, in a flash. They’ve been clocked at 50 miles per hour (80 kph).

 

In this photo, below, he is diving downward. You can see his bill pointed down.

 

Anna’s Hummingbird doing a “J” Dive, California

 

If you’re standing there, it looks like he’s going to collide with the ground. I have gasped plenty of times, afraid for the bird’s safety. But hummingbirds are known for their precision flying.

 

And then at the last moment, he flairs his tail, lifts up and sails skyward.

 

Also at this moment, his two outer tail feathers vibrate together making a distinct popping sound. The speed is so great, that the wind vibrates the two feathers together.

 

Often his iridescent gorget (throat) feathers light up, too. And he starts singing his heart out.

 

As if this wasn’t enough–this dive-bombing, glittering, tail-popping maneuver and serenading–he performs the dive again and again and again.

 

In the Anna’s Hummingbird species, this aerial dive is called a “J” dive, for the flight pattern that looks like the letter “J.”

 

Every hummingbird species has a slightly different dive style. The ruby-throated hummingbird, prevalent in the eastern half of the United States, does a “U” shaped dive; so does the broad-tailed hummingbird. See diagram at end.

 

We saw this dazzling male Costa’s Hummingbird in Palm Springs. Although we didn’t witness the courtship dive (it was February), I’ve read their dive is similar except they hurtle off to the side of the female and twist, to direct their sound.

 

Costa’s Hummingbird, male, California

 

The sound effects during this dive also vary among species. Recordings of six aerial dive sounds. 

 

Anna’s Hummingbird, male, California.

 

Sometimes in the heart of winter we will have a day or two of uncharacteristically warm weather. In this pseudo spring, the male will perform his impressive dive, thinking it’s breeding time. They are also known to use the dive for territorial purposes.

 

Anna’s Hummingbird “J” Dive, California

 

Many times I have watched the female fly away while he was performing the dive. Consequently, in mid-flight, he aborts the dive. It takes a lot of precious energy to do this dive, and he has decided to conserve.

 

There are YouTube videos on this, but they don’t really capture the speed, because they have to be done in slow motion to even see the bird. The dive is supersonic fast and nearly impossible to record. Here’s one of the better videos, in slow motion.
YouTube Anna’s Hummingbird Dive by Chris Clark.

 

During this season when hummingbirds are getting together to breed, keep your eyes and ears open for this spectacular performance. It happens fast, so you may have to watch it a few times.

 

Glory and beauty in the world of nature: you have to be ready.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Illustration of the flight pattern and courtship rituals of hummingbirds "Male dives toward female, reaching a top speed of ~40-50 mph" "Male emits tail-generated noise" "Male's gorget becomes visible to female, appears to change color" "Male reaches maximal horizontal speed [towards female]" "Male climbs back up, preparing for another dive in the opposite direction"

U-shaped Broad-tailed Hummingbird Courtship Dive Pattern. Courtesy princeton.edu

Easter Eggs

Hummingbird nest, Costa Rica

With spring and Easter emerging in the northern hemisphere, the prospect of new birds, new life, surrounds us. Here’s a look at bird eggs.

 

Having volunteered for several years counting nests for a local bird study, I became adept at finding bird nests. Birds build nests to be hidden, to protect their broods from predation, and it is vital that nests and eggs remain untouched and hidden. All nests photographed here have been treated with careful and knowledgeable respect.

 

Violet-green Swallow eggs, California

 

There are over 10,000 bird species on our planet, so the variation in eggs and nests is vast. Each species has its own method for building a nest and laying eggs, and, additionally, there are variations within each species.

 

Egg shapes, colors, and markings vary widely. Below is a guide for the basic egg shapes and markings.

 

Eggshells are made of calcium carbonate, a white mineral compound. Some bird species also have pigment glands that add color or spots as the egg travels through the mother’s oviduct. Because the large end of the egg travels through the oviduct first, it often picks up more pigment.

 

This little bird came out of a brown-spotted egg–first day of life.

 

Pacific-slope Flycatcher hatchling (orange and brown in center photo), and sibling unhatched eggs

 

There is also a wide range in egg sizes. The smallest eggs are those of Hummingbirds, while Ostriches have the largest. Approximately 5,500 Hummingbird eggs would fit inside one Ostrich egg (Handbook of Bird Biology, Cornell).

 

Purple Finch nest and eggs

 

Egg textures vary too–smooth, rough, chalky and more.

 

With endless variations in bird eggs, only two things are constant: all eggshells are porous, and all are laid by females.

 

Eggshells are covered with minute pores allowing air to reach the embryo inside.

 

Inside the egg is an entire universe. Membranes, fluids, and yolk provide nutrition to the embryo, which rotates and floats throughout incubation. Once the embryo has grown to full size, the bird uses its “bird tooth” to break through the shell.

Chicken egg diagram.svg

Chicken egg diagram. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

A clutch is the total number of eggs laid by one female in one nesting. The clutch size varies among species, as does the number of times in one season a bird will lay a new clutch.

 

Bird egg experts, or oologists, collect extensive data. These days, unlike in the 19th and 20th centuries, experts do not collect the eggs, just the information. The egg chart below, and information in the next paragraph, are from an easily accessible field guide.

 

Detailed data on the Western Gull, for example, says this species can lay 1-4 eggs in a clutch, typically 3. Eggs are laid every other day. Usually the female does the incubating, and it takes 25-29 days, typically 26.

 

We spotted this Western Gull incubating on a coastal offshore island while cormorants, oystercatchers, and pelicans clamored about. I think she was having a tough day.

 

Western Gull on nest, Calif.

 

For many consecutive years, several pairs of Pacific-slope Flycatchers (songbirds) built nests near our front and back doors. Sometimes a pair produced two clutches in a summer, sometimes one, depending on the weather and other factors.

 

When it was time, the eggs would usually hatch one per day. But not always. One spring we had a frigid cold front come in. The Flycatchers’ eggs stopped hatching until the cold spell ended, and then resumed when it warmed up a few days later.

 

In our northern hemisphere, numerous bird species are in some stage of breeding or nesting right now. Miracles are happening all around us.

 

In tropical locations, this often goes on year-round. We spotted these Caciques nesting in February in Trinidad.

 

Yellow-rumped Caciques on nests, Trinidad

 

Just before incubation time, most parent birds develop a brood patch on the ventral, or underside, of their body. While feathers are designed to insulate the bird, during incubation when it is essential that the parent’s body radiates warmth to the egg, a small, featherless patch develops to provide an abundant supply of blood vessels.

 

Waved Albatrosses in Galapagos do not build a nest, but just move the egg around.

 

Waved Albatross with egg, Galapagos

 

Similarly, Blue-footed Boobies do not have brood patches. They use their feet to keep the egg warm.

 

Blue-footed Booby with egg, Galapagos

 

Oval or spherical, spotted or pale green, big or little, pigments in the oviduct, brood patch and clutch — who knew the egg could be so eggciting?

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Egg Markings and Shapes. Courtesy Peterson Field Guides Western Birds’ Nests by Hal Harrison.

 

Three photographs of the same Mute Swan with her eggs, and then cygnets.

Mute Swan with eggs in nest, Easter Sunday 2018

 

Mute swan on marsh nest with cygnets

 

Mute Swan with cygnets, Calif.

 

Unusual Birds for Unusual Times

Male Frigatebird in breeding, Seymour Island, Galapagos

During this homebound time, here are some of my favorite unusual-looking birds from around the world.

 

There are so many lovely creatures in this world, each one unique in its own way. But some are especially different-looking; for today I narrowed it down to 12 birds.

 

Bird #1. Male Frigatebird in breeding (above). We worked and saved for two years to see this sight. This exquisite seabird comes to land only to breed, we were determined to observe his remarkable display; journeyed to a remote island in the Galapagos.

 

The male’s pouch inflates and deflates. He spends a lot of energy to inflate his red gular (throat) pouch to attract females. Once it is inflated, he pounds on the balloon-like body part with his wings; makes booming sounds and vocalizations.

 

After the male has found his damsel, the pouch deflates and the business of preparing for the new chick begins.

 

Bird #2. Nothern Potoo. A nocturnal bird, they perch on the end of sticks, flying out to catch insects and returning to their perch.  Nyctibius jamaicensis blends into the perch, rendering it nearly impossible to spot.

 

Our guide took us in a small motorboat to a Mexican marsh.

Northern Potoo, Mexico

 

There are over 300 different hummingbird species in the world. Many of us have seen hummingbirds or photos of them, yet I found the two following hummingbirds particularly unique-looking.

 

Bird #3. Tufted Coquette. With that punk orange hairstyle, polka-dotted wings and iridescence, its not like any hummingbird I’ve ever seen…and I’ve seen a lot. We spotted him deep in a Trinidad rainforest.

Tufted coquette, male, Trinidad

 

Bird #4. Another memorable hummingbird is the snowcap. Microchera albocoronata is in a genus all its own. They are tiny birds, the male is reddish purple with a bright white cap. Even beneath the dark canopy of the Costa Rican rainforest, that snowy white cap could be spotted fairly easily.

Snowcap Hummingbird, Costa Rica

 

Bird #5. The Resplendent Quetzal. The male has long tail streamers, and the female has the same exquisite colors as the male, sans tail streamers. They eat avocadoes, so a guide took us to a wild avocado grove in the Chiriquí Highlands of Costa Rica.

 

Avocadoes that are not bred for human consumption are small, apricot-sized. These gorgeous birds were elegantly shimmering and fluttering from one tree to the next. They were not-so-elegantly eating: swallowing the avocado whole, then spitting out the pit. I vote this the most beautiful bird I have ever seen.

Resplendent Quetzal, male, Costa Rica

 

Bird #6. Cock-of-the-Rock. One of the strangest birds I have ever seen. We waited in the morning dark, in an Andes lek where males gather to perform courtship dances for the female. This bright orange male struts, bobs and hops while vocalizing a cacophony of staccato sounds. That morning there were five or six males vying for one female; she flew off solo after the show.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Peru. Photo: B. Page

 

Before we leave the western hemisphere, I want to show you a lovable strange bird who inhabits the deserts in southwestern and south-central United States. We saw it in southern California.

 

Bird #7. The Roadrunner. Clocked at 20 miles an hour (32 km/h), this bird is speedy. This creature was the star and namesake of the old Warner Brothers cartoons, the Road Runner Show. There’s a reason Wile E. Coyote never caught the roadrunner….

Roadrunner, California. Photo: Athena Alexander

Sporting a long tail and perky crest, Geococcyx californianus hunts lizards and snakes. You see them sprinting more than flying, though they can fly.

 

The other side of the world is also loaded with unusual-looking birds. Here are a few we found in Africa and Australia.

 

Bird #8. The hamerkop is a wading bird, found in Africa, and is most closely related to pelicans. The color is unremarkable brown, but the shape of the head is highly conspicuous, appearing to look like a hammer. Its name means “hammerhead” in Afrikaans.

Hamerkop, Zambia, Africa

 

Bird #9. The secretary bird is a long-legged raptor. The lower half of the legs are featherless, the crest has quill-like feathers.  Sagittarius serpentarius stomps prey with its muscular legs, and uses the large, hooked eagle-like bill to strike.

Secretary Bird, Africa. Photo Athena Alexander

 

Bird #10. Far less ferocious are the African hornbills. There are several species of hornbills, this one is the red-billed. Their conspicuous bill gives them a distinguished, albeit odd, appearance.

Red-billed Hornbill pair, Zambia

 

Bird #11. Vulturine Guineafowl in Africa. In a land of vast savannahs, guineafowl are large, gregarious birds who eat insects and seeds in the grasses. You often see large flocks of them pecking the ground, like chickens. The Vulturine species, Acryllium vulturinum, has elegant markings.

Vulturine Guineafowl, Kenya, Africa

 

Bird #12. By far the oddest bird of all, the Southern Cassowary has a large casque atop its head, large bristly black body, long legs and neck, bright colors, and two dangling red wattles at the throat. We were birding deep in the rainforest in Queensland with a guide when we unknowingly came close to a cassowary’s nest. We had accidentally agitated the male.

Southern Cassowary, Australia

As big as humans, a cassowary has a large spike on its foot and can land a fatal blow to anyone in his way. We didn’t have long to chat with him.

 

Of course there are many more unusual birds in this world, as well as insects, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals.

 

As we all go through this unusual mammalian pandemic, try to remember that the world is full of odd animals.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Two Runners-Up:

Crested Guans, Costa Rica

 

Emu, Mareeba Wetlands, Australia

 

Jet (L) and Athena on Galapagos. Trees with breeding frigatebird colony in background.

 

 

Peace

Halloween Pennant Dragonfly, Horicon Marsh, Wisc.

Whether it’s a pandemic, disaster, or personal devastation, there are times in all our lives when a few moments of peace can bring us into balance. Here are a few reminders of the sweetness of life on earth, I hope they bring you peace.

 

No matter what is unfolding in these weeks of chaos and fear, a few hopeful signs of spring can be so uplifting.

Lambs, California

Carrizo Plains, California

 

Or a special gift of light, usually lasting only a second, that spotlights a wild creature just perfectly.

 

These two photos below are the same species: male Anna’s Hummingbird. One moment his gorget can be mostly black…

Anna’s hummingbird (male), California

 

…and with a turn of the bird’s head and just the right light, the gorget becomes iridescent hot pink. How incredible is that?

Anna’s Hummingbird, California.

 

I love it when light shines through a jackrabbit’s long ears. The ears look brown and furry, and then the rabbit hops into the sun and suddenly you can see each vein.

Jackrabbit, Northern California

 

Sometimes we have natural audio gifts to enhance the moment, like when you are so close to a bird gliding by that you can hear the wind in its wings.

Brown Pelican, California

 

Place can give us peace too. Sometime it’s the complete familiarity of a place that lifts our spirit.  Like knowing a place so well, you know where to go to find the wildflowers.

Shooting Stars, Dodecathion, one mile from home, Calif.

 

Or the comfort of simply knowing a bird species your whole life. I’ve probably seen a million American robins in my lifetime. It is solid, soothing information that no matter how disorienting the times are, the robin is still the robin.

American Robin eating toyon berry, Calif.

 

Old redwoods give me the comfort of feeling young.

Athena with one old redwood tree

 

A creature popping their head out of the ground always gives me a smile.

Western Toad in burrow, California

 

Sometimes magic comes in seeing a wild creature that you never knew existed…

Bigfin Reef Squid, Monterey Bay Aquarium

 

… or finding characters that are marvelously strange.

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

 

I love to be out on a hike when I come upon a wild mammal just doing their own thing. We came upon this cow moose who was chomping down a grassy meal…

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, Moose

 

… and this cow elk, quietly grazing.

Elk in Yellowstone

 

We have these moments in nature because, as humans, we are part of nature. Fortunately, our sweet memories can carry us through the challenging times, remind us how wonderful life can be.

 

Be well, my friends.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexandra.

Black-necked Stilts, Northern California

 

Cumberland Island

Cumberland Island Ferry Boat Dock, St. Marys, Georgia. Jet in blue shirt and hat.

Cumberland Island National Seashore is a small barrier island off the Atlantic Coast of Georgia. Taking the ferry and spending a day on the island offers a peaceful day trip and a pleasant hike.

 

Before we even boarded the ferry, wildlife were entertaining us. We noticed a group of fourth graders squealing at something under the dock, they had found about a dozen fiddler crabs in the low-tide mud.

 

Fiddler Crabs, St. Marys, Georgia

 

This roseate spoonbill was busy probing the mud, filtering crustaceans in its magnificent bill.

Roseate Spoonbill, St. Marys, Georgia

 

The ferry ride is about 45 minutes long and cruises past numerous islands and marshes.

 

The island is only 18 miles (29 km) long. The east side faces the ocean; while the west side faces saltwater marshes and rivers, the Cumberland Sound.

 

It has a long, peopleless beach where we watched several flocks of royal terns in their winter plumage.

Royal Tern pair, Cumberland Island

Georgia Coast overview

Ferry boat Info

Cumberland Island Wikipedia

Cumberland Sound from Cumberland Island

 

Cumberland Island is one of Georgia’s 14 major barrier islands–it is the largest. Fortunately for us, most of Georgia’s barrier islands are protected by state or federal governments.

 

Barrier islands are coastal landforms that have been formed by tides, waves, wind, sand and other elements. They protect the coastline by forming a barrier, thereby blocking ocean waves and wind from directly hitting the mainland. See graphic at end.

 

These islands, also known as the Golden Isles, are so named for the rich amber color of the marsh grasses.

 

While there are many popular tourist attractions on Georgia’s islands, what I like about Cumberland is that it’s refreshingly devoid of tourist facilities and commercialism. There are no stores or concessions here, no golf courses or gift shops, not even garbage cans. You eat and drink what you brought, and pack your garbage out.

 

The Park Service only allows 300 visitors a day. Most people come just for the day, but there is an inn (prohibitively expensive) and camping available.

 

The emphasis is on the wilderness and wildlife.

 

In addition to the barrier islands, Georgia’s coast is comprised of 400,000 acres (1,619 sq. km.) of saltwater marshes. Influenced continuously by the ocean’s tidal action, the marshes flood and drain constantly, bringing in microscopic organisms that enrich the water with oxygen.

 

Abundant fish, shellfish, plants, insects, and birds are attracted to these waters. Marsh grasses and the shallow waters provide cover for the wildlife.

Saltwater Marsh near Cumberland Island

 

There is also a maritime forest on Cumberland Island. It has live oak trees curiously stunted by salt air; they are thickly covered with Spanish moss. The area’s ubiquitous saw palmetto plants (in foreground) dominate the forest floor.

Maritime Forest, Cumberland Island

 

While in this unusual forest, we heard the crashing surf and soon found untouched dunes and the Atlantic.

Sand Dunes and Atlantic Ocean, Cumberland Island

 

Conservationists have been working for decades to protect this beach, successfully encouraging sea turtles to nest. Last year the National Park Service counted 885 sea turtle nests here. The majority of the nests belonged to the endangered loggerhead turtle.

 

This pristine beach has not always been protected. One of the most ferocious protectors of the loggerhead turtles is Carol Ruckdeschel, who has lived on Cumberland for decades. The book “Untamed” by Will Harlan outlines the many achievements Carol has made, often single-handedly, in protecting the turtles and other wildlife on Cumberland Island.

 

Horseshoe crab shells, one jellyfish, and several species of shorebirds dotted the beach. Coconuts, palm trunks and other washed-up detritus were covered with seaweed and barnacles.

Horseshoe crab shell, Cumberland Island

 

Winds were fierce, so we kept hiking.

Beach hikers, my sister and brother-in-law.

 

There are other attractions on the island, like the Dungeness Ruins, a fire-ravaged and abandoned estate with much human history, as well as feral horses.

Dungeness Ruins and feral horse

 

We did not have much time to linger on our mild winter day. The sun sets early in November, and there was only one departing afternoon ferry, it left at 4:45 pm. More ferries are offered in the summer.

 

After we boarded the ferry, the magic did not end. Those same fourth graders were on board, and when the squealing began, I went over to see what they had found this time. Dolphins.

 

Then one last parting gift: the setting sun.

 

As we cruised through the Golden Isles, we were surrounded by miles and miles of golden marsh grasses, lit up like only the sun can do.

Golden Isles, horizontal line through center of image is sunlit golden marsh grasses

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Coastal Landforms, Barrier Island on right. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

Geckos and Birds at the Painted Church

There is a humble tourist attraction on Hawaii’s Big Island called the Painted Church. It is one of my favorite Hawaiian spots with its quiet presence and tropical landscape, on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

 

When we visited last month, a house finch and gecko were together in this papaya tree on the church grounds.

 

This bright and exotic gecko lives on three of the Hawaiian Islands. Gold Dust Day Gecko. 

Gold Dust Day Gecko, Hawaii

This is not a pair you usually see together, but it was easy to see why.

House Finch, Hawaii

The house finch had found a lusciously ripe papaya and had used his strong bill to open the fruit. The gecko was taking advantage of the opened fruit, called in the gang.

 

Geckos feed on fruit, nectar, and insects, and you can see the smorgasbord they were enjoying that day.

 

Six Geckos, Hawaii

There are 1,500 species of geckos in the world. This particular species, Phelsuma laticauda laticauda, is diurnal, active during the day. They are native to Northern Madagascar.

 

Papaya Tree, Hawaii

 

Many birds came into the papaya trees that day.

 

Saffron Finch in Papaya Tree, Hawaii

There are always many butterflies and birds visiting the fruit trees and flowering plants at The Painted Church. I have never seen a lot of tourists visit the church–it’s out of the way–and those who do visit go inside the church, stay five minutes, and drive away.

 

It is so named for the interior that is painted with a unique combination of biblical and Hawaiian themes.

Painted Church interior, Hawaii

The church is more formally named St. Benedict’s Catholic Church, built in 1899. Belgian Catholic missionary Father John Velghe painted the frescoes. They still hold regular Sunday services here.

 

The adjacent cemetery shows the black lava that is so prevalent on this volcanic island. Every time I visit, it is dancing with butterflies.

Painted Church cemetery, Hawaii. Pacific Ocean on horizon.

 

This juvenile gecko in the cemetery was the length of my thumb.

Juvenile Gecko, Hawaii

For over a hundred years people and butterflies and birds have been visiting this tranquil spot on the hill. Thousands of people have stood on the lava sidewalk looking out over the Pacific Ocean. I’m glad to be one of them.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Yellow-billed Cardinal on Papaya Tree, Hawaii

 

Celebrating the River Otter

Snow Geese and Sutter Buttes, Sacramento Valley, CA

Tule marsh with snow geese. Sacramento NWR.

Every winter we drive up to the Sacramento Valley to watch the bird migration. This year we not only had the spectacle of millions of geese and ducks, we were also treated to a half hour with three feisty river otters.

 

 

The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge offers a self-guided auto tour that loops through 10,819 acres (43.78 sq. km.) of wetlands. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about three million ducks and close to one million geese are spending this winter here.

 

Every winter I write a post or two on what we found in the Sacramento Valley. There are a few links below.

Snow Geese

 

Across the United States, the North American River Otter has had a difficult history with declining populations due primarily to hunting, water pollution and habitat destruction. Reintroduction programs have been successful, but the otters still have a tenuous existence.

 

In some states it is now legal again to hunt river otters, though not in California. Range map below.

 

Over the course of our winter wildlife viewing in these wetlands (25+ years), we have had a total of about ten minutes observing river otters. They simply haven’t been around much, despite the wetlands being a perfect habitat.

Sacramento NWR, snowy Mount Shasta in background

 

Last year we had the joy of watching one otter in a flooded field. Five Minutes with a River Otter.

River Otter walking (last year)

This year we had a bonanza with three otters.

 

Fortunately we took the auto tour very slowly, or we probably would not have spotted the otter activity.

 

It is a six-mile drive and we spent five hours on it.

 

After years of practice, including numerous African game drives, we have perfected our auto tour experiences. I am the safari driver, while Athena has the entire back seat for photographing. She has both windows open and several lenses available.

 

Our winters in the Sacramento Valley are always cold, and often rainy…but we are never miserable. We always bring along a hearty lunch and a thermos of hot tea. For elevenses, we warm our home-baked scones on the dashboard heater vent.

 

It is prohibited to get out of the vehicle except in the 3 or 4 designated spots. Using the vehicle as a moving blind, visitors are able to see birds and mammals up close without disturbing them.

Sacramento NWR bird watch sign

When we first noticed a flock of coots flustered and riled in a deep ditch of water, we stopped to see what the excitement was about. We couldn’t see anything, so I slowly drove forward.

 

About five minutes later and along the same water-filled ditch, we saw more movement, still unidentifiable.

 

Here’s what it looked like without optics. There is an otter in this photo: in the center–a dark brown mass in the watery green weeds. It is just below the tall golden reeds and slightly right and back of a horizontal white weed.

Otter in ditch, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

 

Tricky spotting.

 

We both had our binoculars up, scanning, scanning. Hmm…something was going on.

 

Then an otter head popped out.

Otter with fish. Lines on the back and neck demonstrate how water courses off the otter’s fur.

 

And another.

Otter pair with fish

 

Athena’s camera was rapidly firing, and we were silently thrilled as the two active otters were joined by a third.

 

Each otter would vanish under the cold, dark water, then come up with a wriggling, silvery fish in its mouth. It was a frenzy. Continued for a half hour.

 

Eventually the three otters got full bellies, swam to the end of the ditch, scampered out of the water and disappeared.

Otters coming onto land.

 

The rains had been abundant, and fish were too. Oh how I love the blissful days in nature.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Selfie of Jet (L) and Athena (R)

Related posts:

Winter Ducks and More

Snow Geese are Heading Home

Wildlife Auto Tours

Snow Geese

LontraCanadensisMap.svg

No. American River Otter Range Map. Courtesy Wikipedia.