Cooper’s Hawks, The Next Generation

Living in a mixed woodland, I have had the unending pleasure of watching generations of Cooper’s Hawks grow up for several years. Here is a brief look at this fascinating raptor.

It all started with this individual (below), in March of 2017. That month it was cold and rainy with hail and a scant accumulation of snow. Athena and I were very excited about seeing this adult daily, a new addition to our backyard bird population.

I wrote a post about the adult we saw that cold day in mid-March, and the family that developed thereafter.

Here’s the 2017 post: New Cooper’s Hawks

Since then many things have happened, including wildfires that incinerated the madrone tree where they had nested.

It is four years later, the forest is slowly recovering, and the most wonderful miracle happened.

Two new Cooper’s hawks have joined our spirited woodland.

Imagine the thrill for us when, last month, we saw two more juveniles once again circling our property, learning stealth and calling out in that familiar airy cry.

They are the next generation of that same adult pictured in Photo #3 above, who began the nest in 2017. That means not only did they not perish in the fires, but they returned to breed again.

This summer, since our plans for family, friends and trips have been curtailed by new pandemic surges, we spend a lot of time at home. This has given us the privilege of watching the next generation mature.

Just like the earlier brood years ago, the new juveniles are adapting to life in our California forest.

Will they eventually come to the water tray for refreshment like this one did?

They have already learned how to fly, an amazing accomplishment in itself. Unlike many raptors, Accipiter cooperii are proficient at flying through forests. Their relatively short wings and long tail make them skillful hunters amid tree trunks, limbs and leaves. They are a marvel to watch.

This new generation is cooperatively hunting, too. Ordinarily Cooper’s hawks are solitary birds, but when they are young sometimes they hunt together. Both generations we have watched start their prowess this way. One drives the prey towards the other.

So far hunting hasn’t been too successful from what we have seen, and it’s just as well that we don’t see everything.

Both juveniles are hunting together in this photo, taken a few days ago.

While they have learned flight and hunting techniques, our new sibling pair are still learning stealth.

One day they dramatically swooped together into a pine tree with great flying flair, but making such a racket that all the birds vanished instantly. Both hawks were screaming. Actually screaming.

After a few more days went by, we watched one hawk practicing patience. When it flew into the tree the small birds scattered, as usual. But this time the hawk stayed perched for about 15 minutes, waited for the birds to return. They did return, one by one, and the hawk stayed perched and still, just watching.

Every dawn I hear the whistling cry of the Cooper’s hawks. I did today and hopefully I will tomorrow. Interestingly, the screaming voice is lessening in volume as the birds mature. The hawks and I start our new day together, pursuing life in our own ways.

We take it one day at a time, figuring out what to do next and next and next.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Postcards from Kakadu

Here’s a park so big that it has four river systems. It is loaded with wildlife, some that eat humans. It dates back tens of thousands of years; and although it’s accessible, most people will never get here.

Kakadu National Park is a vast expanse in the northern tip of the Northern Territory of Australia. It covers 7,646 square miles (19,804 sq. km) and holds the double distinctions of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a Ramsar Wetland.

There are two basic seasons in Kakadu: dry and wet. Like many wilderness areas in the world, the dry season in Kakadu means the water sources have shrunken, which brings the wildlife closer to the water and more available for observing. The wet season brings monsoons and flooding.

More info about Kakadu: Wikipedia and Parks Australia

We were there in the dry season, in September of 2010. As birders we stayed focused on the wetlands, foregoing the waterfalls and other land features spanning this enormous park.

Due to the extremes in temperatures and conditions, accommodations and human establishments were few. We stayed at the only lodge in the park to be closer to the wildlife.

Every day by noon the thermometer hovered around 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 C.), so we did most of our exploring in the very early morning and late in the day.

Probably our favorite activity was the Yellow Water Boat cruises, cruising in a pontoon boat through the wetlands. We had safe and close-up views of saltwater crocodiles and wetland birds.

The largest living reptile on earth, saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) also have the greatest bite pressure measured in any living animal. Salties, as the Australians call them, can stay hidden underwater for an hour, eventually lunging up to grab their prey and devour it. They look deceptively docile.

Predators abound in this harsh wilderness. We watched in awe as this female Australian Darter wrestled with a large fish…and stayed until the fish’s tail went sliding down her throat.

This four-foot stork (50 inches tall or 127 cm) foraged in the lily flowers.

Equally as enticing were some enormous escarpments: steep, rocky plateaus jutting out of the floodplains. We visited two of the more well-known rock formations that were highlighted with Aboriginal rock art, Ubirr and Nourlangie Rock.

The rock art dates back about 20,000 years. Sources vary as to the exact age of the drawings, but the origin of the artists is undeniably Aboriginal.

The Aboriginals drew pictures not only as expression, but as part of their dream culture, striving to encourage the spiritual world to bestow an abundance of wildlife for hunting, healthy offspring, and other human riches.

By visiting these rock art sites and learning about the original people, a curious thing happened. The past fused with the present, and all of humanity came alive.

It heightened the sacredness of this place.

Link to Rock Art at Kakadu National Park.

Most nights after the heat had diminished by about 20 degrees, a simple walk through the adjacent campground became a fun activity. Due to crocodiles, walking around the wild and watery places was not safe.

So we looked for birds in the campground, where vacationing Australians in their “caravans” (van-size campers) were cooking their dinners and socializing. It was a raucous scene most nights, and endlessly interesting. Up above us in the surrounding trees were unique birds.

In the campground we stood out as birders in our geeky clothes and equipment; and two college students befriended us. They called us “twitchers” (birders) and took us to see owls and stone-curlews, and listen to unusual frogs.

The mornings were filled with sightings of birds and crocodiles and beautiful wetland scenes, until it got too hot.

We spent the afternoons submerged in the lodge swimming pool or reviewing our bird studies. At night the geckos in the room got loud, and we ventured out to the campground.

When our week in Kakadu came to a close, we returned to the Northern Territory’s biggest city (Darwin) about a four-hour drive away. In the pre-dawn morning we boarded a flight for the next leg of our journey on the Great Barrier Reef.

As we continued our Australian adventures, the sacredness, beauty, raw wildness, and danger of Kakadu blissfully remained with us. Thanks for sharing this adventure.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Brown Creeper Story

There is a novel member of the bird kingdom who blends in so perfectly to its environment that few non-birders know about it. I am happy to share a recent encounter.

The brown creeper is relatively small, and is almost always found on trees. They are a woodland songbird. The bird’s back is primarily black and brown with textured patterning, and it camouflages into the tree bark so remarkably that seeing it is nearly impossible.

An insect-eating bird, they have a slender decurved bill perfect for digging into tree bark and plucking out beetles, aphids, caterpillars, ants, spiders and others.

More Brown Creeper info – allaboutbirds.org

Much like a nuthatch, they make their way up a tree in a spiral pattern, then flutter back to the bottom of the next tree and repeat the same spiraling hunt. The fluttering moment is usually the only time you really see them. They use their stiff tails for support and are consequently adept at foraging upside down.

They have a sound too, but it is very high-pitched and often muted by louder creatures. Click here to hear.

One day last month, Athena and I hiked through the forest on our morning walk. It was nesting time in the forest.

That morning we had already checked on the raven nest, the bluebird nest, and the Pacific-slope flycatcher nest.

While Athena was photographing, I noticed some unusual brown creeper behavior and my eyes followed an adult going to an obscure crack in the bark of a California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica) tree.

Then she vanished into the crack.

In that moment I heard the characteristic sound of hungry cheeping nestlings being fed, and knew I had found a creeper nest.

We watched a few minutes more and realized the nest was safely wedged behind the bark of this towering bay tree.

For days we watched the nest, and each new day the voices of the nestlings became stronger. Visions of new creepers danced in our heads.

Then one morning we came out and saw part of the trunk had crashed down in the night. The nest. Oh no, the nest.

This forest was severely damaged in wildfires. Many of the surviving trees look like they’re fine, but often a limb will just drop. Or sometimes a tree looks like it’s recovering and growing, and then one day the whole thing keels over.

Before the fires, this bay tree was an admirable one–huge and strong with multiple trunks. But you can see it has suffered from the fires, bark has lifted from the tree or fallen off in several places; it’s not as mighty as it once was. But it’s great for creepers, who like the rippled bark for nesting.

We studied the damage and soon realized the trunk piece that had fallen was separate from the nest.

So our hearts once again lifted.

Here you can see freshly ripped wood (left trunk) and a large hunk on the ground underneath (lower center). An arrow indicates where the nest is.

We stood there in anticipation, waiting to see if the parent was still tending the nest…and she was. They might have had a roller coaster night with the big next-door trunk cracking and dropping, but the nest remained safe.

Coyote, bobcat and fox come through on this trail regularly. We find new scat and fresh divots every morning, so a nest loaded with defenseless babies on the ground could have been disastrous.

Another day while we were photographing the creeper nest, a dark-eyed junco started scolding and harassing the parent creepers.

We soon discovered that the juncos had a nest, too, hidden in a hole beside a big rock that we were clambering around to see the creepers. We moved away and then all was well again.

As the month of June unfolded, the creeper voices continued to become even stronger.

Then one magical morning it happened.

The nestlings had become so developed that their little heads were starting to poke out of the bark. Both parents were industriously catching insects and delivering them to the nest. With binoculars, we could see their little heads.

One parent would arrive, present the insect, then fly off; and soon the other parent would do the same, and this continued for at least a half hour. It was a dizzying pace.

This parent has a spider in its bill, taking it to the nest.

And another.

At one point there was a slight pause in the delivery, and the voices raised to a louder, more emphatic volume as the impatient nestlings were forced to wait a few extra minutes.

And then one of the little chicks suddenly, and quite naturally, emerged out of the nest and started plodding up the tree.

Two siblings watched while the eldest left the nest.

Soon another sibling left…and then there was one.

Then all three were out. There was quite a bit of commotion, with their high-pitched peeping and the parents trying to keep up, flying after them and catching insects. We were all very excited.

The fledglings did not venture too far, but now they were learning to fly and feed and make their way around independently.

This fledgling was learning how to use its still-short tail to balance.

One tyke tumbled off an oak limb, but it extended its wings in a desperate struggle and landed softly. It was fine.

We think there might have been a fourth nestling, it seemed there was shadowy activity inside the tree bark crevasse. But that day it did not show itself.

And the next day when we returned, there were no creepers, nor have there been any since then. They have all moved on.

It was fortunate we were there at the right time to watch this nest full of baby birds on their maiden flights fledging into the forest.

You just never know where or when a miracle is going to happen.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Tropical Delights

Sometimes it is interesting to see some of our most common foods in their pre-processed earth-growing forms. Here is a fun look at a few of the food delights I have seen while birding in tropical countries.

The food plant I have seen the most in my tropical birding travels: bananas.

Genus Musa. Bananas grow in a wide variety of soils and are harvested in 135 countries.

The largest herbaceous plant, a banana plant is typically about 16 feet (5m) tall. There is a large pink flower or inflorescence that emerges from the plant where the bananas grow.

Although I would never venture into plantations on my own, local bird guides, familiar with surroundings and people, often take Athena and I into the fields.

In the Amazon, our guide led us through this banana plantation, below, as we headed for a bird blind. We were on a mission to spot macaws at the river bank. We took a shortcut through rows of these bananas. They are the most common cultivar, the Cavendish, the species most of us buy from the grocery store.

Lucky for us, we found the macaws too.

Interestingly, a few days after our macaw experience, our motorized canoe passed by these bananas being transported on their way to market.

This euphonia bird, in Belize, is eating the banana seeds he successfully wrangled out of the banana.

While the banana is one of the most recognizable food items in the world, there are few people who would ever know that these red pods are what chocolate is made from.

Years earlier, while birding in Belize, we first saw yellow pods hanging in the trees. In a flash, our guide Glen had kicked off his shoes, climbed a tree, and brought down a yellow pod. None of us knew what it was.

It is a cocoa pod. They come in various colors, depending on the species and maturity.

As Glen opened the pod, he enthusiastically explained he had done this frequently as a kid. It was impressive how quickly and deftly he climbed up that tree.

Making chocolate starts with the pod. They are cut from the tree with a machete, and the beans are extracted from the pod. There are 30-50 beans in each pod. The beans go through an elaborate process of fermentation, drying, roasting and more.

We tasted the beans, but it was nothing like chocolate. In fact, for one like me who is a chocolate lover, I chose to forget the taste.

Coffee, like chocolate, also goes through a lot of processing.

It starts in the field with a worker, like this Mexican man with his basket and machete. We were in this plantation marveling at parrotlets, soon after dawn, when he came through to start his work day.

Shade-grown crops, like this coffee plantation (below) in Belize, are an environmentally sound way to grow crops. You can see there are tall trees in the same land parcel as the short coffee plants. This way the coffee can grow without obliterating the surrounding forest.

These toucans, in this field, were happy about that.

This is one of the coffee plants up close. You can see the coffee berries in clumps in the center.

Between exporting and explorers, there have been many centuries of trading and transporting exotic foods. In tropical islands like Hawaii, we see many unique foods that originated in Southeast Asia like star fruit and rambutan.

While birding in a historic churchyard on the Big Island of Hawaii, we came across these star fruit.

When you cut a cross section of the fruit, the pieces are star-shaped.

Rambutans, too, are a plant that originated in Southeast Asia but also grows well in Hawaii.

Friendly surfers on a Kauai roadside sold us tasty rambutans.

It is a red tropical fruit with soft, hair-like spikes, seen in the center of the plate below. Easy to find all over Hawaii.

Pineapples and papayas are also easy to find all over Hawaii, both originally from the Americas.

This gecko is waiting for the day when the papayas will be ripe.

We are lucky in my home state of California where conditions provide a rich variety of crops. But I will have to cover that another time.

Whether you’re traveling or birding or simply cruising your own back roads, there are often crops or plants around us providing food to humans or other earth-dwelling inhabitants.

Cheers to a marvelous planet on which we live, providing sunshine, soil, rain and oxygen.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Birds of the Rainbow

There are many scientific discussions about the brightly colored birds on our planet. But instead of getting bogged down with melanin, refraction, and mating theories, let’s just look and admire today.

This is a day to relax into the rainbow.

We will start with the first color of the rainbow: red. The summer tanager and vermillion flycatcher, both found in North America and elsewhere, begin the rainbow with a hot start.

Shades of red vary in the avian world, these two birds are red-orange.

Pink birds, a variation of red, are not seen as commonly.

Next on the spectrum, orange in birds is often paired with brown. But this azure kingfisher sports a very bright orange breast and legs (and dazzling azure head and back).

This orange and black grosbeak breeds in our backyard every summer. The male’s colors flash conspicuously as he flies.

Since many forests have green leaves that turn to yellow, yellow birds can be found in many places.

Green is a color often seen in parrot species.

This violet-green swallow, a bird who nests in our nest boxes, swoops through the air showing off his elegant emerald finery.

Blue and indigo are both colors of the rainbow, and in birds there are numerous shades of blue.

This so-called green honeycreeper appears more turquoise.

While this turquois jay is adorned with several shades of blue.

The greater blue-eared glossy starling provides a blue spectacle all its own.

The aptly-named resplendent quetzal gets my vote for the most beautiful bird on the planet. The blue-green shades shimmer in the light, and the long streamer tail floating behind the bird stops you in your tracks.

We traveled to a very remote village in a Central American cloud forest to see this bird. We met our guide at 5 a.m. and he took us to the wild avocado trees where the quetzals eat. At one point there was actually a traffic jam in the forest because truck drivers, potato farmers and anyone passing by abandoned their vehicles to join our admiration club.

The peacock, a native of India with a long swag of green and blue, is incredibly eye-catching with a tail full of eyes.

Violet birds. The Costa’s hummingbird looks black in some light. But its throat and head vibrantly come alive with iridescent purple in the right light.

And this purple honeycreeper is so garishly purple it is difficult to look anywhere else.

Although the lilac-breasted roller has a lilac-colored breast, the bird showcases a rainbow kaleidoscope, especially when the bird spins through the air.

This leads us to a few sensational birds who grace the world with all the colors of the rainbow.

The rainbow bee-eater, a marvel to behold.

The painted bunting effortlessly showcases all the colors on the artist’s palette.

And lastly, the remarkable rainbow lorikeet, boasting the colors of the rainbow like no other bird on this planet.

Birders and photographers know well the game of light when it comes to the outdoors. If a brightly colored subject isn’t in good light, the color doesn’t stand out.

But there are those marvelous days when the light is just right: a day to celebrate the colors of the rainbow and all the glory on this planet.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

New Life in a Dead Tree

Our forest was 98% burned in the October 2017 Northern California wildfires, and much of it is still black and charred. It is not, however, lifeless. This week there is a nest of baby bluebirds starting new lives inside a dead tree.

The first year post-fire, we could not live in our house or forest while repairs were underway (some readers may remember this). A year later and back at home again, I found my morning walk in the forest was too depressing. So I settled into a new routine in town that had live trees, joggers and dog walkers.

But then with the Covid lockdowns last year, life changed for everyone. I reluctantly returned to our decimated forest. Destroyed as it was, the forest became a safe and isolated, peopleless place close to home. Our maskless haven.

What was once deeply forested, had turned into a barren wasteland.

But oddly enough, now almost every day Athena and I find new treasures.

About two weeks ago we discovered a pair of western bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) exhibiting nesting behavior at this dead pine tree. Nesting here seemed impossible for how very dead it is. A few days of nest-building went by, but then we noticed the activity had stopped.

Bluebirds build nests a little differently than other songbirds. Many times they have a hiatus from building for several days or more. Sometimes they abandon the site, build elsewhere. But other times they just take a break, and then return and continue building. I guess they take one last vacation before the chicks are born.

After about a week of quiescence at the tree, we witnessed them flying back and forth to the hole again. Their behavior was stealthy, never flying directly to the hole. They would fly near to it, then perch on a branch, then another, and then into the hole. If we stood too close, they didn’t go in. This behavior raised our hopes.

When they were gone, we checked out the tree. During the 2017 incineration, the top half had fallen off, while the lower half remained standing. The tree is basically hollow. There were two holes that woodpeckers had carved in the trunk many years past, long before the fire.

One of the holes is what the bluebirds now use for entry. It is about 15-20 feet (4.5-6 m) above the ground. Inside the tree there must be a sort of natural shelf, perfect for the new nest. It rests just below the hole, we surmised by the angle in which they enter.

Last week, each of the pair were industriously visiting the nest about eight times an hour, with insects in their bills. They were feeding nestlings.

And this week, we faintly heard baby bluebird voices coming from inside this charred monolith.

Right after the fire, there were no animals or plants in this devastated area. The first rains sprouted underground seeds and the first spring brought small insects, and ankle-high plants and wildflowers.

Gradually other “fire follower” plants started growing.

And now, 3.5 years after the fire, most plants are about knee-high.

Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon californicum), a chaparral fire recovery plant, is prevalent. The plants above ground all perished but their underground rhizome system was intact.

The Yerba Santa is flowering this month. They are attractive to many butterflies and other insects.

Bigger insects are here now, too, like butterflies and dragonflies.

Woodpeckers remain infrequent; but ravens and turkey vultures soar overhead, while small birds and lizards use the tree carcasses to perch and hunt.

Most of the lizards in this burn area have taken to camouflaging in black, like this male, below.

It will be a quarter-century before the oak, pine, fir and manzanita trees grow up, but new life has begun. And baby western bluebirds will be fledging any day now.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Junco Nest

Finding nests is one of those magical spring events that can sometimes lead to a sad ending. All kinds of things can go wrong in this vulnerable bird activity. But fear not: this story has a happy ending.

Juncos are sparrows, and common across North America. Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) are migrants in parts of the continent, and year-round residents in other parts. Where I live in Northern California, we have both: residents and migrants. The two races look a little different, but at any rate, we have a healthy resident population who are currently nesting. (The migrants left several weeks ago.)

More info: All About Birds Dark-eyed Junco

They are ground birds, with a diet primarily of seeds, and are ground nesters.

You can imagine what kind of dangers lurk for a ground nest on a rural mountain property — snakes, raccoons, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, and skunks frequently roam our hills and forest.

Last autumn there were wild amaryllis flowers, aka Naked Ladies (Amaryllis Belladonna), growing outside our kitchen sink window. They are bright pink flowers with a bubblegum scent. They grow everywhere, like weeds; found these (below) beside a trail in a park. You can see a mass of their dead leaves at the base of the flowers.

Every spring around April, after the flowers outside our kitchen window are long gone, the leaves dry out and turn yellow and we cut them back.

Except this year something different happened.

While the leaves were still green, a junco began hopping around underneath the amaryllis leaves, displaying unusual behavior. We recognized it as nesting behavior and realized the female was building a nest under there.

Slowly the amaryllis leaves began to dry out, but there was still enough foliage for completely camouflaging the nest.

About a week after that, there was more progress. Both the male and female were stealthily and industriously coming in with a worm or insect clamped in their bills. They hopped underneath the leaves, vanished for a second, then flew out; repeating this activity dozens of times in a day.

Babies!

This little corner of our property is not commonly visited by humans. We use it as a shortcut, but visitors don’t…well not human visitors. It’s on a hillside with giant boulders, as you can see in this photo, and not conducive to human walking. Can you see the amaryllis leaves in the middle of the photo? Also, take note of the external pipe on the right side of the photo.

Plenty of wildlife walk through here. After 20 years at the kitchen sink, I have seen so much activity in this little corner of the world. Sure makes doing dishes fun.

This particular nest, however, was worrisome from the start. The ground nesters, in my humble opinion, are asking for trouble.

From the critter cam we know of one skunk individual who regularly waddled through here in February and March. It was part of his or her nightly routine. Suppose that skunk would like a nice, delicious midnight snack.

Now that the nest was there and a new family was on the way, the risks seemed high. I hoped the skunk had found a new routine.

Years ago this gopher snake came through. I guess it found the pipe a fun challenge. But–yikes–a gopher snake so cheeky to wrap around a household pipe must be a very successful hunter.

We commonly have rattlesnakes here too. This time of year they’re just coming out of underground hibernation. Too sad if they were to enjoy some fresh breakfast eggs.

Days went by and the feeding continued, feverishly. Apparently they still had the nestlings.

Although it was tempting to lift the leaves to investigate, we never did.

Not a good idea. Didn’t want to traumatize any of these birds. The parents were working so hard on constantly keeping their new brood fed. And the nestlings were no doubt tiny and extremely fragile.

We waited until the feeding was done and all the birds were gone. That was last week.

We never saw one baby bird, but we were sure they were under there due to all the feeding activity.

Then this past Monday, after a week of nest dormancy, we looked into the nest.

Gingerly pushing away the dead leaves, we found this beautiful grassy nest in a small depression in the ground.

They typically lay 3-5 eggs, and apparently it was a successful brood because the nest was empty except for some fecal sacs.

Whew. It could’ve turned out differently, and we certainly have witnessed plenty of unsuccessful broods. But what a relief and complete joy to know there are several new baby juncos making their way in this world.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Spring at Point Reyes

Spring brings a riot of wildflowers on the pastoral hillsides of Point Reyes, and this year has been heavenly. Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California is a large peninsular park along the Pacific Coast.

It is a park with a rich and diverse history, picturesque beaches and trails, cliffs and bays, a lighthouse and several other interesting and historic features. We often go to the northern side of the park around Tomales Bay, where all photos here were snapped.

Last week we found wild purple iris in hundreds of spots.

During the California Gold Rush in the 1850s, approximately 300,000 people arrived in California and began settling. That is when dairy farms became a prominent part of Point Reyes. Fresh creamy butter, and later, cheese, became highly regarded.

Back then, Point Reyes farmers packed casks of freshly churned butter and loaded it onto schooners. They shipped it to San Francisco, 30 miles south, where it was distributed.

Today there are still 13 commercial dairies here. Although it is a federally designated recreational preserve, the dairies remain legal via grandfathered laws.

The dairy farms continue to supply millions of households with delicious organic dairy products; and farmers never hassle the daily parade of cars filled with tourists, hikers, and beach-goers driving through.

One of the ranches had this mellow horse near the house.

More info: Point Reyes Wikipedia

Pt. Reyes map, courtesy Wikipedia.

In this area of the park there is also a tule elk preserve.

Cervus canadensis nannodes live only in California, and can be seen here in every season.

Last week we came upon this harem, or herd of females, lazing in the sun.

The Point Reyes elk species was extirpated in the 1800s, but the population was revived in the 1970s with a successful reintroduction project. There are about 300 individual elk here today.

We spotted these three male elk grazing in the distance.

With the proximity of the ocean, fog is a common feature at Point Reyes. Heavy winds too. There have been times when I was hiking on a trail and could hear the elk calling very near, but could not see them, obliterated by the thick fog. A few times when the fog cleared, we would be surprised, humans and elk, at how close together we were.

But this April day we were enjoying clear visibility and mild temperatures.

From the car, Athena photographed the three elk, while I was having a stare-down with this bull.

We regularly hike at Abbott’s Lagoon. It is named after two brothers, 19th-century dairy farmers.

There is a three-mile hike through chaparral and sand dunes to the ocean. No dogs are allowed here, and there are no food establishments within 15 miles. It is simply land and sea and walkers.

Quail, white-crowned sparrows, ravens, and raptors always join us.

Last week the male red-winged blackbirds were displaying for the females.

Mammals greet us too–usually deer, bobcat or coyote. We saw this coyote last week.

There is a patch of bare brown sticks along the trail, it’s taller than all the hikers, and nondescript. In spring the foliage and flowers come alive, revealing it as salmonberry.

When we’re not hiking, we’re driving the roads spotting wildlife. I drive slowly on the windswept hillsides, pulling over to allow fast cars to pass, while Athena’s camera clicks away.

Since the pandemic has curtailed our travel, we’ve been staying local. We visit Point Reyes for a half-day, just an hour or so from home, and it feels like a vacation.

And now I can’t think of a better place to vacation.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

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.