Wildlife at Horicon Marsh

Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

One of the largest freshwater marshes in the United States, Horicon Marsh offers a plethora of wildlife. Located in the southeastern quadrant of Wisconsin, U.S.A., and covering 32,000 acres (12,949 ha), the marsh is a critical rest stop for migrating birds.

Wikipedia Horicon Marsh. 

I love the solitude and beauty of this marsh, have written posts outlining how it was shaped: first by the glaciers, then by humans. But today I’m focusing just on the wildlife, because this is what I find so enchanting.

Previously written post: Horicon Marsh

Common Yellowthroat, Horicon Marsh

Box Turtle, Horicon Marsh

Black Tern, Horicon Marsh

One of the most elegant terns on earth, the black tern migrates to North America from South America, and breeds at the Horicon Marsh, as well as other sites in northern U.S. and Canada.

 

Forster’s terns also breed at the Horicon Marsh.

Forster’s Tern, Horicon Marsh

 

Trumpeter Swans and cygnets, Horicon Marsh

Trumpeter Swans nest here too. This bird nearly went extinct, but has had a successful reintroduction. In 1933, there were fewer than 70 trumpeters living; today there are approximately 46,000 (Wikipedia).

 

And cranes! There are only two crane species in North America, and I’ve seen them both here at this marsh. There are few places of which this can be said.

 

In summer, sandhill cranes can often be seen at the marsh or in nearby fields, most often in pairs. The wild whooping cranes, however, were a rare sighting; they are an endangered species.

 

Whooping Cranes, Horicon NWR, Wisc.

In 1941 there were only 21 wild whooping cranes in existence. It has a been a long, hard struggle for this beautiful bird; but in 2015 the count was up to 603 individuals (including 161 captives) (Wikipedia).

 

Dragonflies abound, box turtles, butterflies, and over 300 species of birds.

Yellow Warbler on nest, Horicon Marsh

 

Halloween Pennant Dragonfly, Horicon Marsh, Wisc.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly, Horicon Marsh

Marsh birds are prevalent, like Canada geese, ducks, and herons.

Red-winged blackbird, Horicon Marsh, WI

Red-winged blackbirds, a healthy marsh staple, were everywhere; and one special siting that lasted about ten seconds: a yellow-headed blackbird.

Monarch Butterfly, Horicon Marsh, WI

 

American White Pelican (photographed in Calif.)

Also saw numerous American White Pelicans. Wisconsinites are happy about the come-back of this bird. The pelicans were absent for about one hundred years, probably due to over-hunting. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife estimated, in 2002, that the Horicon Marsh numbers had risen to about 1,200 white pelicans.

 

Muskrat, Horicon Marsh

It was a thrill to see several muskrats (locals call them “muskies”), especially the one that climbed out of the water–wonderful to see the whole body.

Common Muskrat, Horicon Marsh, WI

Marshes were once thought of as wasteland because they were not commercially enterprising. Part of the Horicon Marsh history includes those periods too, destruction and failed developments.

 

Fortunately residents and environmentalists changed that, saw its value, and preserved 32,000 acres. Today the benefits of wetlands are more widely known; they help moderate global climate conditions and play an integral role in watershed ecology. They also provide a productive ecosystem for countless living organisms.

 

How lucky for us.

 

All photos by Athena Alexander (except where noted)

 

Athena at the Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

 

Horicon Marsh at sunset

 

 

Wildlife on the Galapagos Islands, Part 2 of 2

Frigatebird, male display, Galapagos

In 1841, Herman Melville came to the Galapagos Islands aboard the whaling boat Acushnet. He described the islands as having “emphatic uninhabitableness.”

 

I find this uninhabitableness part of the charm of Galapagos.

 

Welcome to Part 2. If you missed Part 1, click here.

 

Giant Tortoise, Galapagos

 

On Santa Cruz Island, we had the thrill of observing Giant Tortoises in the wild. At the Charles Darwin Research Station we visited the breeding station where they raise the young in their first five years. After that, the tortoises are released and monitored.

 

We also hiked up into the highlands, found what looked like large boulders–the tortoises. The largest living tortoise on earth, they can live to be 100 years old.

 

Oh how very slowly they moved. When those old eyes looked out at me, I was immediately struck by the wisdom and reverence of these venerable creatures.

 

Giant Tortoises, Santa Cruz Island

 

In addition to the large body, head that retracts into the scraped-up shell, and their freaky slowness…they hiss. They are simply letting air out of their lungs.

 

This video I found is a good representation:  YouTube Video by lauramoon.

 

Previously posted: Giant Tortoises of The Galapagos

 

Not to be outdone by the ancient tortoise, the Land Iguana is another reptilian island wonder.

 

Land Iguana, Galapagos

 

Endemic to the Galapagos, this large lizard is 3-5 feet long (0.9-1.5 meters), inhabits several islands. Their lifespan is 50 years.

 

This is not a flitty gecko in your presence; it is a huge, lumbering, prehistoric-looking behemoth.

 

Herbivorous, we found them eating, always. Due to their large size and short legs, they ate whatever was on the ground. They like prickly-pear cactus for the moisture, and eat low-growing plants and fallen fruits.

 

Land Iguana, South Plaza Isl., Galapagos

Previously posted: Land Iguana. 

 

For a week we lived and slept on a boat, the most common tourist method of accommodation here. Every night we sailed to the next island. Every day we boarded inflatable boats, and ventured onto a new island.

 

Often we saw sea turtles, whales, and other marine life.

 

Sea Turtle, Galapagos

 

Whales, Galapagos

 

When we came to Floreana Island we were treated to a look at flamingoes. With their specialized beak for straining food, they ate shrimp and made circuitous paths in the mud.

 

Flamingo, Galapagos

 

Flamingo feeding, Galapagos

 

Galapagos cormorants are one of the rarest birds we have in the world. Although cormorants live all over the planet, the Galapagos cormorants are especially unique. These birds are flightless.

 

They evolved without wings because there was plenty of food on shorelines, and no ground predators. With stumps for wings, these blue-eyed beauties hopped among the lava rocks.

 

Previously posted: Galapagos Cormorant

 

 

Galapagos Cormorant

 

North Seymour Island. It was very windy on this small and unprotected island in the middle of the Pacific, where sand whipped us and you could not hear the words of the person next to you.

 

We hiked to the frigatebird colony, something I had been dreaming about doing for years.

 

This is a remarkable sea bird that we only see in tropical ocean areas. They soar with their incredible wingspan of 7.5 feet (2.3 m), sometimes for weeks. It was an unusual sight to see frigatebirds up close, perched on branches; for they are usually high above, only recognizable by their expansive silhouette.

 

But the most striking aspect was the complete chaos. Frigatebirds were screeching, whining, rattling, whistling, and drumming.

 

Frigatebirds, Galapagos. Male with chick on left has deflated pouch, male on right has inflated it.

 

 

Male Magnificent Frigatebird displaying

 

With the most dramatic display of all the seabirds, the male frigatebird’s red gular pouch inflates to attract the females, is used as a drum to punctuate the message. He beats his wings against the pouch, creating a deep, low, booming sound. When the dance is done, the throat deflates.

 

Previously posted: Breeding Frigatebirds.

 

Galapagos Sea Lion

 

Herman Melville called it uninhabitable, Charles Darwin changed the world with his findings here.

 

Thanks for visiting this remarkable, other-worldly place with me.

 

All photos: Athena Alexander

Land Iguana, Galapagos

 

San Cristobal Island Harbor, where we boarded our boat

 

Wildlife of the Galapagos Islands, Part 1 of 2

Swallow-tailed Gull, Galapagos

An archipelago located 600 miles off South America’s coast, the Galapagos Islands are a cluster of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean. Due to their remoteness, the islands have been difficult to access for hundreds of years, rendering the life that does exist to be unique, like nowhere else in the world.

 

Without significant predators present, the wildlife have evolved differently than what we see on mainland continents. It is here where Charles Darwin’s observations in 1835 led to the inception of the theory of evolution.

 

I recently read there are seven wildlife species tourists most want to see on the islands, so I have covered them all in this two-part series (not in this order), plus more: tortoises, sea turtles, marine and land iguanas, penguins, blue-footed boobies, and sea lions. (National Geographic June 2017)

 

Galapagos Island Wikipedia overview

 

Situated in a confluence of ocean currents, and influenced by extreme weather patterns and trade winds, the islands host a variety of habitats.

 

Life here is like being on a different planet.

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

Marine iguana, a fascinating and prevalent species on the islands. They are the only lizard on earth that hunt under water.

 

We were lucky one day to find two males gnawing at algae on the rocks under water with us, where we were snorkeling. Much of the time, however, you see their colonies lazing upon the lava and boulders, numbering in the hundreds; for they have to soak up the sun to move.

 

They range in color, depending on the island where they reside; and their sizes range too. The ones we saw averaged about 4-5 feet long (1.2-1.5 m) including the tail.

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

Previously posted: Snorkeling with a Lizard.

 

Though sources vary somewhat, the Galapagos have 18 major islands, 13 smaller islands, and 42 islets.

 

Espanola Island is the southernmost island and often the first stop for arriving birds. Here there is an unusual landscape of breeding birds. Among the craggy rocks, hard lava, and windy flats are the nesting colonies of two seabirds: blue-footed booby and waved albatross.

 

Gifted with the bluest feet you will ever see, the blue-footed boobies populate this island in various stages of breeding and nesting. One half of all breeding pairs in the world nest in the Galapagos.

 

Blue-footed Booby, Galapagos

 

Previously posted: Blue-footed Booby.

 

Waved albatross, usually only seen at sea, also nest here. Listed as critically endangered, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be so close to this remarkable bird.

 

Waved Albatross pairs, Espanola Island, Galapagos

 

Previously posted: Waved Albatross.

 

Blue-footed Booby mating dance, Galapagos

 

Keep in mind these birds are endlessly mesmerizing to a birder like me. But the harsh sun and sour, fetid smell of hundreds of nests at your ankles can be off-putting to some people.

 

Another day while snorkeling, we came upon Galapagos penguins, also an endangered species. They are the second smallest penguin on earth, and because of their small stature, they are preyed upon by a long list of land and sea animals.

 

Speed is their lifeline. They shot past us in the water like bullets.

 

Galapagos Penguins

 

Wikipedia Galapagos Penguin

 

Sea lions abound on the Galapagos. They frequent the beaches, traverse the lava, and are seen gracing every island. But the most thrilling day was when we tumbled over the side of the inflatable boat and into the deep water.

 

Sea Lions, Galapagos

 

As if we were their favorite playmates, the sea lions came bounding over to us–spinning and circling and ready to frolic. A social and playful mammal, they gave us the warmest welcome these chilly waters could offer.

 

Looking forward to continuing the wildlife adventures in Part 2, next Friday. Stay tuned, fellow earthlings.

 

All photos: Athena Alexander

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

 

Galapagos Islands, center. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

New Cooper’s Hawks

Adult Cooper’s Hawk, in mid-March in the oak tree

Hawks are fierce hunters; they fly and perch noiselessly, hunt swiftly and quietly. But the chicks, of course, are not that way; they haven’t learned how to be  warriors yet.

 

Dependent, hungry, and inexperienced, the chicks have squawky voices and incessant demands: “feed me feed me feed me.”

 

Cooper’s Hawk fledgling, early July

 

It was the Cooper’s Hawk chick that gave away the secret of the well-hidden nest I found, high up in a madrone tree.

 

Just as I looked up to examine the unusual sound, a parent swooped into the nest with food. This quieted the chick. The little guys hadn’t learned stealth yet, and the parents know too well the importance of it.

 

Stealth is the key to survival in nature.

 

This coyote, in the vicinity of the hawk nest, would find a hawk chick tasty

 

Accipiter cooperii are medium-sized hawks, native to North America.  They live and breed primarily in forests, preying on birds and small mammals. Adult pairs breed once a year, and live in the wild as long as 12 years.

 

Cooper’s Hawk info. 

 

It was back in mid-March when I began noticing the Cooper’s Hawk here every day.  Temperatures were in the 30s and 40s (F.), there was even snow. The hawk perched every day in the same bare-leafed oak tree. Quiet and still, it mostly watched.

 

Eventually the cold days gave way to spring, and leaves started to bud and unfurl on the hawk’s oak tree. The raptor apparently preferred bare trees, because he or she moved, began perching on a nearby dead pine tree.

 

Once in awhile a bold hummingbird would harass the hawk, rather ridiculously, scolding it to move on. But nothing ever happened.

 

Then in June things changed. The hawk moved from that favorite spot in the pine tree–began perching near the bird feeders, instead. There were close-calls when the hawk nearly got a pigeon or mourning dove; and more frequently we were finding signs of a kill, evidenced by gray dove feathers scattered in the yard.

 

California Quail

 

Then there was the breakfast incident.

 

We were eating breakfast outside when a terrified California quail, sounding his alarm call, flew by us. Just behind him, the Cooper’s Hawk sailed effortlessly by, gaining on the quail.

 

Quail are heavy ground birds and don’t fly much. Cooper’s Hawks are agile fliers, silent and fast, bearing down dramatically on their prey.  When they reach the prey, they capture it with the talons and squeeze the bird to death.

 

The two birds disappeared around a bend.

 

Ten minutes later, during tea and scones, the hawk flew over our heads with the plucked prey in his talons.

 

When a raptor is taking food away from the kill-site, it usually means there are hungry chicks waiting in the nest.

 

Cooper’s Hawk nest in madrone tree

 

It was the next day when I found the nest in the treetop, spotted the noisy chicks.

 

There were two chicks, and they were pretty big, nearly adult size. One was still in the nest; the other sat perched in a nearby tree. Neither could fly, but the older one could hop around.

 

Cooper’s Hawk fledgling, early July

A few weeks have passed and the nest is abandoned. But the chicks are still here.

 

The parents are quiet and hidden, there’s no evidence of them being around, but that’s the way it should be.

 

The chicks, well, they’re still learning. They hunt together, and I always hear them at dinnertime. The two siblings have high-pitched whistling calls, and they never stop making noise.

 

Instead of perching quietly and watching, they fly around conversing with one another through the trees. And yesterday they landed together on our deck railing.

 

We all have things to learn, even ferocious raptors.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Nesting House Wrens

House Wren

House wrens are a small bird, abundant in the Americas, with a divine melodious song and elegant markings. They have numerous loveable aspects, but what is endlessly amusing and curious are the many places they choose to nest.

 

Since they are unable to dig their own cavity, they take up residence in all sorts of places.

 

Last week, while visiting Wisconsin, we found a pair of house wrens nesting in the base of an old basketball hoop.

 

Athena found the nest while photographing other birds, many of whom had nesting activity in my cousin’s rural yard. The bluebirds were tirelessly feeding their chicks, the barn swallows were doing the same; both in conspicuous nest boxes and easy to see.

 

Contrastingly, the house wren was quietly perched near an old rusty basketball post. Only one blade of dried grass could be seen. But every few minutes this clever bird would vanish under the rusty dome.

 

House wren with nest

House wrens are known for their creative nests. Small birds less than five inches (13 cm) long, they squeeze their little bodies and build a nest in some of the oddest places–old boots, abandoned cars, traffic lights.

 

A contemporary of John James Audubon wrote he found the house wren in “…olive jars, boxes, and … the hollow of trees.”

 

Audubon, too, found the house wren entertaining and “extremely pleasing.” He dedicated a drawing in his famous book to the house wren. Plate 83 in Birds of America, published 1827-1838, depicts Troglodytes aedon nesting in an old hat.

House Wren drawing by John James Audubon. Plate 83. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Audubon’s house wren observations here.

 

This common songbird can be found throughout the Americas, from central Canada down to the southern tip of South America. See map below.

 

They have many predators (cats, rats, squirrels, owls, and more), but regardless of their vulnerability and diminutive size, house wrens are the most widely distributed bird in the Americas. They often brood two clutches (group of eggs) in a season, and lay from 3-10 eggs per clutch.  More info here. 

 

See the grass tucked up under the rusty dome?

A resourceful bird with a heavenly voice, the house wren has been building nests and breeding for centuries, lighting up the surprised faces of humans, and filling the air with sweet music.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kingfishers of the World

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

A bird widely distributed across the world today, the kingfisher inhabits almost every continent (map below). This successful and thriving species has fossils that date back 30-40 million years.

Forest Kingfisher, Australia

 

Contrary to their name, not all kingfishers catch and eat fish; some species prefer frogs, snakes, worms, and more. Wikipedia overview.

 

Green Kingfisher (female), Belize

 

Though sources differ, there are approximately 100 species of kingfishers. Largely tropical birds, the majority inhabit the Old World tropics and Australasia.

 

The species we see most in North America is the belted kingfisher,.   In Europe, the kingfisher most commonly seen is appropriately called: common kingfisher. There are 10 species in Australia, 18 in Africa.

 

Whenever I am walking around a lake or river and hear the characteristic ratcheting of the belted kingfisher, whatever I am doing, I look up and search for this avian friend.

 

Australia, Kakadu Nat’l. Park

Kingfishers have a disproportionately large head and long, pointy bill; with short legs and stubby tails. They range in size from 3.9 inches long (10 cm) (African dwarf kingfisher) to 18 inches (45 cm) (giant kingfisher).

 

Giant Kingfisher, Botswana

When you come across a kingfisher, they are often perched on a branch, scanning the ground or water below. One of the easier birds to spot, they have bright colors, a distinct shape, and a predictable behavior.

 

Kingfishers have excellent vision, including binocular and color; and are able to recognize water reflection and depth. Some species have eye membranes for water protection. The pied kingfisher, for example, has a bony plate that slides across the eye on water impact.

 

Pied Kingfisher, Botswana

 

Blue-winged Kookaburra with frog in mouth, Australia

 

Little Kingfisher, Australia

Once the kingfisher spots the prey, they swoop down and snatch it, return to the perch. Holding the prey in their strong bill, they beat it against the limb, breaking it down to a sizeable portion for consumption.

 

Sometimes kingfishers will hover above water and dive in for fish.

Green Kingfisher (male), Belize

 

A kingfisher discussion would not be complete without mentioning the laughing kookaburra. Although this kingfisher lives primarily in Australia, many of us all over the world have heard of it, from the song. “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree….”

 

Laughing Kookaburra, Australia

You can hear the great old children’s song, written by an Australian music teacher in 1934, here: the song

 

The real-life sound of a laughing kookaburra is truly wonderful. When I first heard it in a park in Sydney, it startled me.

 

Loud and cackling, it sounds nothing like laughter. You might think it was a monkey (or a wild beast) if you didn’t know better. Kookaburra call. 

Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Zambia

With a variety of specialized hunting skills, successful worldly range, and striking  colors, this bird is one that many of us have been celebrating our whole life.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Kingfisher range. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

Postcards of America

On this Memorial Day weekend, I share with you some of the beauty of America.

Dairy Farm, Mayville, Wisconsin

 

Jackson Lake, Grand Tetons, Wyoming

 

Little Cowboy, Rodeo, Grover, Colorado

 

Cows, Wildflowers, Carrizo Plains, California

 

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC

 

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, Wyoming

 

Joshua Tree National Park, California

 

Pronghorn, Great Basin, Nevada

 

Moose in Aspen Grove, Alaska

 

Mt. Rainier, Washington

 

Black Oystercatcher, California coast

 

Haleakala Crater, Maui, Hawaii

 

Grizzly Bear, Denali National Park, Alaska

 

Dickcissel, Attwater Preserve, Texas

 

Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

 

Texas Longhorn

 

Nene, Kauai, Hawaii

 

Snow geese, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, California

 

Space Needle, Seattle, Washington

 

Lava beach, Honaunau Bay, Big Island, Hawaii

 

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

 

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

Chromatic Pool, Yellowstone, Wyoming

 

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

 

Denali, Alaska

 

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 

Big Horn Sheep, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

 

Anise Swallowtail Caterpillar, California

 

Wood Duck, male, Calif.

 

Roadrunner, California

 

 

Bobcat, Point Reyes, California

 

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

 

Maui, Hawaii

 

Big Sur, California

 

 

Redwood Forest, Humboldt County, California

 

Cypress Swamp, Jesse Jones Park, Houston, Texas

 

Alligator, Sanibel Island, Florida

 

Olympic Peninsula, Washington

 

All photos by Athena Alexander