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.

 

The Raven

Raven, Point Lobos, California

This all-black bird has either fascinated or intimidated humans for centuries. I am one of the fascinated fans. Corvus corax  have a versatile and wide-ranging diet; a full repertoire of vocalizations; and a rare ability to problem-solve.

 

A member of the Corvid family, the most intelligent birds on the planet, ravens have captivated humans for centuries. Hundreds of scientific studies and thousands of observations continue to prove how advanced a raven’s thinking is.

 

Corvids include crows, jays, magpies, rooks, jackdaws, and more.  Common Raven Wikipedia.

 

At the Golden Gate Bridge, SF skyline in background

 

They reside in our planet’s northern hemisphere; see range maps at end.

 

This photograph offers a good size comparison between a bald eagle (left) and a raven (right). It was very rainy day and we were all drenched and a little cranky.

Bald eagle (juvenile) on left, raven on right. Sacramento NWR, CA

 

It can be difficult to distinguish the difference between a raven and a crow. They look very much alike, differences are subtle.

 

Here are a few of the differences that help me with identification:

  • The raven is the larger of the two birds;
  • Adult ravens usually travel in pairs, whereas crows are often seen in large flocks;
  • The call of a raven is a deeper croak than the crow;
  • Ravens like large expanses of open land, while crows are more often seen in densely populated areas;
  •  A raven’s tail, which you can see well in the photograph below, has varying lengths and tapers into a rounded wedge shape; whereas a crow’s tail has feathers all the same length, the end is straight across.

Raven in flight

More info for distinguishing the two here.

 

Raven

 

We have a raven pair on our property who often come to roost at the end of the day. After the sun has set, I hear them call to each other. Caw, caw, caw says one. Then I hear the other one reply: caw, caw, caw. They can go on like this for several minutes. I think they’re discussing which tree to spend the night in.

 

Here they were captured by our camera trap. They are keen to collect our offering of mice, caught in traps from our storage space. Look closely in the right raven’s mouth. They take the mice and fly off with their cache; circle this stump from above on their daily hunting route.

 

Even the Tower of London has a long history with ravens.

 

Not everyone, including Edgar Allan Poe, find ravens to be a delight. But even Mr. Poe, in his poem, found them to be mysterious.

 

Common Raven, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

Big and raucous, and sporting the all-black color of the underworld, ravens have an intimidating effect on some cultures.

 

If you happen to see a raven blinking in a moment when their extra protective eyelid, the nictitating membrane, is revealed, they can look eerie.

Raven revealing nictitating membrane in eye

 

But observe them long enough and you hear dozens of creative vocalizations that you never knew were possible. You see barrel rolls and aerobatic displays that can only be interpreted as one thing: fun.

 

You see enough of the fun and games of ravens…and you’re hooked for life.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

 

Range Map for Common Raven

North America Range Map for Common Raven, courtesy allaboutbirds.org

Corvus corax map.jpg

World Map, Common Raven Range, courtesy Wikipedia

Jubilee and Munin, two of the London Tower’s ravens in 2016. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

The Okefenokee Swamp

Alligator, Okefenokee Swamp

Here’s a place I have heard about my whole life. Catchy name. I got to visit it this past November, and it is as unusual and quirky as it’s name…and far more exotic and beautiful than I had ever imagined.

 

The Okefenokee Swamp is a peat-filled wetland that straddles the U.S. Georgia-Florida border. A vast and shallow bog, it covers nearly a half-million acres (177,000 ha). In ancient times it was part of the ocean floor.

Cresser Prairie, Okefenokee Swamp

There are hiking trails, a self-guided auto tour, an observation tower, camping, and more. But being on the water is decidedly the best way to experience the Okefenokee.  You can rent boats, take your own out, or pay for a boat tour.

 

We took the guided 90-minute boat tour, and it was excellent.

 

Alligators peered out from beneath the water’s surface.

Alligator

 

 

Pond cypress trees

Pond-cypress trees and Suwannee Channel

 

It is the largest blackwater swamp in North America. The water is characteristically slow-moving, filtering through vegetation and decay, resulting in tannins that make the water appear black.

 

Blackwater generally has less nutrients and more acid, hosting flora and fauna different than you see around fast-moving water.

 

The cypress trees (Taxodium ascendens) (pictured above), rooted in water, have a curious bulbous base that assists in stabilizing the tree.

 

Trees living in water:  not something we see very often.

 

Surrounding the cypress trees are woody projections, tapered stumps, called “cypress knees.” These are part of the cypress root system thought to provide the tree with stability as well as oxygen.

Cypress Knees in front center

The guide steered the boat down the long man-made Suwannee Canal, as we suspiciously eyed the alligators, kept our limbs and digits well inside the boat. Monarchs fluttered along the shoreline, turkey vultures soared overhead, woodpeckers and blue jays dipped among the trees while catbirds shouted their mewing calls.

i

Forest trees, thickly draped with Spanish moss, arched overhead.

Moss-draped forest

I studied the faces of canoeists as they glided by, admired their calm as they paddled through the black, alligator-studded water.

Canoeists in Okefenokee Swamp

After we left the main channel, we headed into the Chesser prairie. There are many wetland prairies, or open landscapes, in the Okefenokee and they’re all named.

 

Wading birds like ibis, egrets, and herons dotted the landscape.

 

In addition to the abundant water lilies (Nymphaea odorata), clumps of pitcher plants (Sarraceniaceae) could be seen in a few places. A cobra-shaped carnivorous plant, it eats and digests insects.

 

Its sweet nectar entices the insect in while the waxy inner surface traps the insect, who then drowns in the inner chamber.

Pitcher Plant

The history of the Okefenokee is an interesting one, home to Native Americans and white settlers in earlier centuries. Toward the beginning of the 20th century, opportunists embarked on draining the swamp and harvesting the cypress trees for profit.

 

Fortunately for us, by 1937 the area became protected.

 

In some parts of the Okefenokee there are small islands, called batteries, that you can see floating by.  About the size of a desktop or larger, they are made of decaying organic matter called peat that originates on the swamp floor and floats to the surface.

 

“Okefenokee” is a Native American word of Seminole origin that means “The Land of the Trembling Earth.” It is believed that the long-ago Native American residents probably walked on those floating batteries, and experienced trembling.

 

Trees and flowers that live in the water. Plants that eat insects. Mammals that eat humans. And black water wherever you look.

 

The Okefenokee Swamp is marvelously unique.

Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Wikipedia

Visiting the Okefenokee

Informative overview