Wildlife in the NFL

Male Lion, Serengeti, Africa

 

The affinity people have for animals is deeply rooted in our past, and continues to this day. All around us are signs of animal love, even in America’s National Football League. Since we are currently in the clutches of the NFL playoff season, let’s take a fun look at wildlife-based team names.

 

Of the 32 NFL teams, nearly half echo wildlife species: five are birds, ten are mammals. (Many mascots, major, and minor league teams have wildlife themes as well–too many to cover here.)

 

In no specific order, the first photo represents the Detroit Lions. Then there are the:

 

Seattle Seahawks

Osprey in Mexico

 

Los Angeles Rams

Male Bighorn Sheep aka Rams, Colorado

 

Baltimore Ravens

Common Raven, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

Buffalo Bills

African Buffalo, Botswana

 

Atlanta Falcons

Laughing Falcon, Belize

 

Most of the NFL animal names conjure up images of toughness, but not all. The Dolphins, for example, are not an intimidating mammal; and Colts don’t leave me trembling. But Bengals, Jaguars and Panthers, yes, they are wild animals we don’t want to mess with. Broncos can be dangerous, but the amplified horse neigh sound in the Denver stadium is more entertaining than scary.

 

If you’re wondering about my favorite team, I have many. I hail from a long line of Cheesehead ancestors, diehard fans of the Green Bay Packers. My cousin, for example, did a eulogy at my mother’s funeral wearing a giant yellow foam cheese wedge on her head.

 

Beyond what I was born into, my next favorite team is Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. This is a cake I baked last year for Super Bowl Sunday, with Tom Brady on top.

 

Super Bowl cake with Tom Brady on top

 

More teams include the:

Philadelphia Eagles

Bald Eagle, California

 

Arizona Cardinals:

Red-crested Cardinal, Hawaii

 

I don’t just follow two teams, I follow them all. I have numerous favorite quarterbacks, and dozens of favorite offensive and defensive players.

 

I enjoy the game for the athleticism, strategy, complexity, excitement, and ingenuity. The drive for excellence is endlessly inspiring to me.

 

But my football merriment is nothing in comparison to many fanatical fans. We took these photos from the television in a recent nail-biter playoff game.

 

Philadelphia Eagles fan

 

Chicago Bears fan

 

And since we’re talking about football, how could Jet Eliot mention NFL team names without a nod to the Jets?

for the New York Jets

 

For the next few weeks we will be celebrating the completion and winner of the 2018-2019 football season. It’s great to have these burly teams showcasing the same wildlife that many of us revere.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Wikipedia links: National Football League and American Football Positions

 

Chicago Bears

Grizzly Bear, Alaska

 

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Winter Ducks and More

Green-winged Teal, male

This time of year we are greeted in Northern California by half a million ducks. They literally flock to the mild winter climates of the Pacific Flyway; spend the winter here, and then in late January or February head north to their breeding grounds.

Green-winged Teal, Cosumnes River Preserve

The Pacific Flyway is a bird migration route that extends from Alaska down to Patagonia; it runs through central California. The area featured here, the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, encompasses several refuges and is centered near California’s capital city, Sacramento. But these migratory birds can be found in winter throughout the Flyway, in numerous refuges spanning the state.

 

Here are six of my favorite migrating ducks. Each duck species breeds in a different place; I have linked each one for more information.

 

The Green-winged Teal, with its dazzling green eye patch, is one of the smallest ducks we have in North America. They are abundant in wetlands, preferring shallow ponds.

 

Buffleheads have some kind of magic over me because no matter what I am doing, I always stop to observe this stunning duck. From a distance the male looks black and white, but in certain revelatory light the black on his head is actually iridescent patches of green and purple.

 

Bufflehead pair; male, left; female, right

 

It rains in winter a lot (if we are lucky), and I don’t mind that; but it’s the sunny days when the Cinnamon Teal glows a spectacular burnished red.   Typical of teals, this species is a small duck, and sexually dimorphic (males and females exhibit different physical characteristics).

 

Cinnamon Teal pair, male in front.

 

Mating pair of Cinnamon Teal

 

Then there’s the Northern Pintail. An elegant duck with a long neck and pointy pin-style tail. They can be found in many other northern continents.

 

Northern Pintail, male, Colusa Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, Calif.

 

Northern Pintails at Sacramento NWR

 

Similar to the pintail in size is the northern shoveler. Northern Shovelers can be mistaken for mallards due to their similar color patterns…until you look closely at the spatulate bill. Named for its shovel-like bill, the northern shoveler is yet another stunner whether floating or flying.

 

Male Northern Shoveler

 

Northern Shoveler, California

 

Bigger than teals and smaller than shovelers, the American Wigeon is another migrating duck commonly seen in the winter Pacific Flyway. They breed in much of Canada and Alaska, and spend their winters in milder parts of the U.S.

American Wigeon, male

American Wigeon pair, male on right

 

I would be remiss if I didn’t give you a few photos of other winter denizens of the area. Not ducks at all, the following winter birds add a flair of avian beauty to the waters.

 

Sandhill cranes congregate every winter in the shallow fields.

 

Sandhill Cranes in rice field

 

Bald eagles get their feet wet, too.

 

Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR, California

 

We found this flock of White-faced Ibis hopping around in a frenzy one rainy afternoon. They use their long sickle-shaped bills to probe for snails, crayfish, fish, and frogs.

 

Flock of White-faced Ibis, Colusa NWR

 

White-faced Ibis

 

Geese are easily the most abundant wintering migrant to the Pacific Flyway, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Ducks and geese in this Complex tally ten million.

 

Snow Geese

 

If you have the occasion to be in Northern California, it is well worth a few days of winter adventuring to spend time here. But don’t wait, most of the birds will be gone in a month, headed north.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander

Snow geese

 

 

 

 

 

Wildlife in Winter

Grizzly Bear, Alaska

As the northern hemisphere experiences the winter solstice, let’s take a look at how various wildlife species adapt to this season. It’s a fascinating picture, and each animal has a different story.

 

Some animals hibernate, some go into a more wakeful sleep called torpor, some barely lose a wink, and others migrate. For many creatures, the body changes.

 

Classic hibernators, like bears, eat large amounts of food in autumn to store fat for survival. They sleep all or part of the winter, and exist primarily on their fat stores. There is a slow-down of heart and respiration rate, and a lowering of the body temperature.

 

But few animal species have such a defined program–it varies by region, temperature, elevation, and other factors. And truth be told, even bears differ widely in their hibernating tactics.

 

Most big mammals have enough bulk that they do not hibernate. Bison, for example, simply grow a heavier coat to withstand freezing temperatures.

 

Shedding bison in back, Yellowstone NP

 

Bison in Lamar Valley on a snowy day, Yellowstone

 

Smaller mammals, however, are more inclined to hibernate because little bodies have a high surface-area-to-volume ratio; i.e. it takes more energy for a small animal to stay warm. Many small mammals burrow into the ground to wait out the foodless winter.

 

Marmot, Mt. Rainier, Washington

 

Marmots (aka groundhogs) build their fat storage and spend half their lives in hibernation. Prairie dogs, on the other hand, periodically come out of the burrow to munch on grass and then go back to sleep.

 

Prairie Dog at burrow, Colorado

 

Every species has a different physiological system for adapting to the food loss of winter.

 

Reptiles are cold-blooded and depend on the sunshine for metabolic activity.

 

Skink, California

 

In winter most reptiles in cold regions find a deep crack or rock cave and sleep through the months of sunless chill. They’re so inactive they don’t eat…don’t need to eat.

 

If you pick up a lizard who is essentially dormant, they only open their eyes in terror; but they do not move because they can’t.

 

Northern Alligator Lizard, California

 

Many species group together for warmth. They huddle while they sleep. That’s how we can sometimes come across a hole filled with snakes, or large colonies of bats.

 

Eastern Long-eared Bats, Australia

 

Some snakes and amphibians hibernate underneath water in locations where water doesn’t freeze. Certain snake species use their skin as a lung to extract oxygen from the water.

 

Even though toads and frogs stay quiet and resting most of the winter where I live, on a fluky mild winter day I will hear a toad call out from its burrow.

 

Western Toad in burrow, California

 

Insects transform into larvae, nymphs, eggs, or pupae forms to weather the winter. Others, like the monarch butterfly, migrate to warmer places.

 

Anise Swallowtail Chrysalis or Pupa

 

There is endless variation not only in species, but in location too. Here in northern California where the winter is mild, hovering close to freezing for only a month or two, I often discover winter wildlife anomalies.

 

I’ve read that praying mantis adults, for example, hide their eggs from predators for the winter and then die off. In spring the new insect emerges from the egg and starts the life cycle.

 

Not where I live. This photo of a loggerhead shrike in the California winter rain about to eat an adult praying mantis proves otherwise.

 

Loggerhead Shrike preying on a praying mantis, California in January

 

If winter temperatures do not fluctuate drastically, or are relatively mild, many insects find shelter and food in leaf litter, tree holes, under logs, or in soil or plant galls.

 

And don’t get me started on what the birds do. Some stay put if they live in a temperate zone, others migrate, and still others tough it out in cold regions. There is only one bird known to hibernate, the common poorwill. 

 

Some birds and small mammals in arctic regions turn white in the frigid months to camouflage with snow. Their bodies adapt in numerous ways. Below are the summer and winter versions of the willow ptarmigan (bird) and snowshoe hare.

 

Willow ptarmigan, Alaska in August

 

Willow Ptarmigan Nonbreeding adult

Willow ptarmigan in winter plumage. Photo by John and Ivy Gibbons.

Snowshoe Hare in August, Alaska

 

Snowshoe Hare, Shirleys Bay.jpg

Snowshoe Hare in winter. Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson.

 

Whatever the season, nature not only has its curious, changing ways, but also unpredictability…just enough to keep the mystery and beauty alive.

 

Happy Solstice, Happy Holidays, dear reader.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

Mammalian tourists in winter

 

Bountiful Nature in Seward, Alaska

Seward Harbor

Seward is a small port town on the southern coast of Alaska, tucked in a harbor on the Kenai Peninsula. Surrounded by glacial water and snow-capped mountains, it is a small town with a big presence and abundant beauty.

 

Seward Wikipedia

 

This town is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. Situated on Resurrection Bay in the Gulf of Alaska, it offers many ways to explore the Harding Icefield and its nearly 40 glaciers that dominate this area.

 

We took a half-day boat trip out of Seward and had the thrill of seeing a glacier from the boat. Occasionally a huge mass of blue glacial ice broke off (“calved”) and tumbled into the frigid waters below.

 

There are only four remaining icefields in the U.S., the Harding Icefield in Seward is one, and covers 300 square miles (777 km2).

 

Gulf of Alaska and Glacier

 

Seward Highway Vista

 

There are 190 different species of birds here, and a plethora of land and sea mammals.

 

Moose

 

In addition, the Gulf of Alaska waters are teeming with sea lions, sea otters, humpback whales, and more. We were there in the month of August, and saw thousands of wild sea mammals and migrating birds.

 

Sea Otter, Gulf of Alaska

 

There in Resurrection Bay sea lions bulk up on fish, otters gorge on shellfish, migrating birds reproduce over the summer. We witnessed dozens of bald eagles perched atop boat masts in the Seward marina, strategizing their next fresh catch.

 

Bald Eagle, Seward Marina

 

We never tired of spotting numerous humpback whales and other marine mammals and seabirds.

 

Humpback Whale Fluke

 

Common Murres

 

Common Murres nesting, Alaska

 

Steller Sea Lions, Gulf of Alaska

 

Located only 120 miles (193 km) from Anchorage, Seward can be reached by many different modes of transport. We drove the 2.5 hour trip along the Seward Highway, a National Scenic Highway. Along this highway with breathtaking vistas, we saw both moose and fishermen up to their hips in the water.

 

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, Moose

 

 

Fishermen

 

Sea islands, Gulf of Alaska

 

As inhabitants of planet Earth, we are all so lucky to have the natural wonders of Alaska and Seward.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander, except the photo below.

How the historic Iditarod Dog Sled Race is connected to Seward. 

 

Photo by Derek and Julie Ramsey. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

The Great Plains and Pawnee Grasslands

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

Over the years much of America’s expansive Great Plains have vanished due to human development, but there are still some grasslands that glow with the pureness of the prairie. A prairie area in the northeastern quadrant of Colorado, one that I love, is the Pawnee National Grasslands.

 

In the U.S., the Great Plains lie geographically between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. North of the U.S. border, Canada also has substantial prairie ecosystems in parts of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. See map at end.

 

There are significant contributions to the earth that prairie ecosystems offer. The dense grass roots absorb rain, preventing erosion run-off. Prairies increase our ecological diversity, encouraging native plants and wildlife, species migration; they also capture carbon and support pollinators.

 

Native Prairies, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

 

There is a sweetness of life on the prairie. The melodious songs of the meadowlark, the gentle flight of the longspur, prancing pronghorn, clever coyote, quietly grazing cattle, rustling grass, and moody thunderstorms.

 

Pawnee Buttes, Colorado

 

Pronghorn, Colorado

 

Many people think of the plains as boring. Unless you’re in one of the major cities, there isn’t a lot of what some people consider activity. It’s true, I suppose, that things do move a little slower, it’s not the urban rush or the suburban sprawl.

 

Here there is agricultural industry and rural living.

 

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

 

But there is most definitely activity. Prairie dogs industriously build entire towns underground. The storms that erupt in those vast, open skies are more electric and exciting than any city light show. Fox, deer, coyote, rabbits, and rodents abound. Several dozen bird species animate the country air. Prairie wildflowers nod peacefully.

 

Prairie Dog, Colorado

 

Impending Storm on the Pawnee Grasslands

 

Western Meadowlark, Colorado

 

Western Kingbird, Pawnee Grasslands

 

Ranchers work diligently on their livestock, and put on a lively rodeo in nearby Grover every June.

 

Little Cowboy, Rodeo, Grover, Colorado

 

Rodeo, Grover, Colorado

 

And it’s not just the outdoor marvels of nature here, either. As Americans approach Election Day next week, I am reminded that the first woman to vote did so in the western prairies.

 

It was in Laramie, Wyoming, just a short drive from the Pawnee Grasslands, where in 1869 the first woman in the world legally cast her vote.

 

Wyoming State Capitol in Cheyenne. Statue of Esther Hobart Morris “Proponent of the legislative act … which gave distinction … to Wyoming as the first government in the world to grant women equal rights.”

 

Wyoming Wikipedia

Great Plains Wikipedia

Pawnee National Grassland Wikipedia

 

The jagged ridges of the Rocky Mountains can be seen from the Pawnee Grasslands. If you’re ever headed west toward the Rockies, take a few days to pause in the Pawnee area, you will be enchanted.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Pronghorn

Map of the Great Plains.png

Great Plains in red. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Acorn Woodpecker Granaries

Acorn Woodpeckers, Costa Rica

At this time of year when the acorns are dropping, California’s acorn woodpeckers are busy. They store their nuts in a most unique way.

 

A medium-sized woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus uses its bill to pick up acorns, one at a time, then flies each nut to a designated storage facility, called a granary. Usually granaries are dead oak trees, but sometimes they are man-made wooden structures, like a telephone pole or fence post.

 

Acorn Woodpeckers at a granary, Belize

 

Fencepost granary. Photo by Giles Clark. Courtesy atlastobscura.com

 

Last month I had the pleasure of taking my morning walks through a state park, and was enchanted by the large population of acorn woodpeckers. As I walked down the lane, I spotted the characteristic dip of the woodpecker flight pattern, and heard their delightfully raucous voices.

 

Calif. State Park, lane with numerous acorn woodpeckers

Such an attractive bird, with their bright red-capped heads and flashy red, white, and black markings. Every day I saw at least 20 acorn woodpeckers.

 

Here in California we see granaries often. From a distance it looks like a dead tree; but when you get close you see the tree trunk is filled with holes. Upon closer examination, each hole has an acorn stuffed into it.

 

The social structure of acorn woodpeckers is extensive and complicated, with cooperative breeding and large family groups. Not only do they tend their nests together, they also build their granary together.

 

There’s an ancient phrase that’s goes something like…a granary wasn’t built in a day. Each granary is a culmination of years of acorn gathering. A granary can be pocked with thousands of acorns and perfected over a decade.

 

Male acorn woodpecker at granary. Photo by Johnath, courtesy atlasobscura.com

 

Photo by David Litman, courtesy atlastobscura.com

The woodpeckers actually work all year long on their granaries, but this time of year is especially exciting when the acorns have become harvestable.

 

Building the granary is only half of the work; maintenance and protection are also important.

 

To keep other birds and squirrels from stealing the precious nuts, each acorn is tightly fitted into a hole. The woodpecker has a sharp bill and excavates the hole, then pounds the acorn in with no extra space, making it difficult to be removed.

 

Over time, however, the old, dry acorns tend to shrink. When this happens, the woodpeckers remove the loose acorn and find (or create) a smaller and more suitable hole.

 

Acorn woodpeckers also eat insects, other nuts, lizards, seeds, grass, and more.

 

Acorn Woodpecker Wikipedia

 

This bird species, dependent on oak trees, lives primarily in the western and southern parts of the U.S., as well as Mexico and Central America. We are lucky to see them all over California. See range map below.

 

Excellent short video of acorn woodpeckers at a granary:  Click here.

 

With their clown-like look, colorful markings, cheerful laughter, and productive activities, this bird will bring a smile to your face even before you see their masterpiece.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander, unless otherwise specified.

 

Range Map for Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker Range Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.com

 

Raptors in Autumn

Barred Owl, Texas

Every fall thousands and thousands of raptors in North America migrate south for the winter as their food supplies begin to wane. Here are some basic facts about raptors and where to find them as we enter into the northern hemisphere’s autumn.

 

Also known as birds of prey, raptors include many different species. Some more commonly known raptors are: eagles, ospreys, kites, hawks, vultures, falcons, and owls.

Osprey in Mangroves

Not all raptors migrate. It depends on how cold the winters get, if there is enough available prey. We are fortunate in Northern California to see many raptor species in all seasons.

 

Other parts of the country, however, have consistently cold winter weather and, consequently, raptor migration every autumn.

 

Snail Kite

 

Although raptor migration lasts roughly between August and November, late September is the prime time for watching these grand birds.

 

Bald Eagle, California. This raptor almost went extinct.

With their sturdy wings and broad wing-spans, they utilize upward air currents, i.e. thermals, to assist with their long flights. The migrating populations concentrate along mountain ridge lines, coast lines, and other topographical features to take advantage of the updrafts.

 

See the map below for raptor migration pathways in North America.

Merlin, Sacramento NWR, California

American Kestrel, California

Turkey vulture pair on fence, drying wings; Calif. coast

 

There are numerous predictable spots for hawkwatching in North America, where anyone can observe migrating raptors, especially hawks.

 

Two popular U.S. hawkwatch stations I have visited are Cape May, NJ on the east coast; and Hawk Hill outside San Francisco on the west coast. Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania is the most famous hawkwatch station in the U.S.

Red-tailed Hawk in rain, California

 

Cooper’s Hawk, California

 

Because migrating hawks fly high over land masses, the birds are usually far away from us ground-dwellers. Raptor migration birding, therefore, engages in a different kind of bird-observing technique. There are no bird sounds or calls, and no close-up views for bird identification. Instead, birders systematically scan the sky with binoculars or scopes; and identify the species by silhouette, profile, size, plumage, and flight behavior.

 

Many times I have stood beside hawkwatchers with my own high-powered binoculars looking at what they look at, as they call out their sightings. Usually, to the bare eye, the hawk is the size of a rice grain.

 

Data is recorded and posted daily. The information gleaned from it is paramount in raptor conservation.

 

Osprey, Florida

 

Red-tailed hawk with chick, California

 

California Condor, Calif. — another raptor we almost lost to extinction

 

Great Horned Owlet, California

 

Raptors are important birds for providing our planet with a healthy ecosystem.

 

Raptor Conservation Wikipedia

 

If you are interested in finding a Hawkwatch venue in North America, hawkcount.org provides links to approximately one hundred sites.

 

For folks who just enjoy seeing a powerful bird soaring overhead, now is a good time of year to keep your eyes open and your neck craned.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander, all North American raptors

PS – For my friends–you’ll be happy to know Athena and I are moving  home tomorrow, after 11.5 months displacement following the October 2017 Wine Country fires. This is our ninth and final move in the post-fire event. Our own migration.

 

Hawk Mountain Raptor Migration Path Map

North American Raptor Migration Pathways. Courtesy hawkmountain.org