Cormorants and More, Richardson Bay

Cormorants in San Francisco Bay

Because they are common and widespread, sometimes I take cormorants for granted.  Then one day I found myself living on the San Francisco Bay, in temporary housing, and I witnessed some unique behavior.

 

In the Bay Area the double-crested cormorant is the prevalent species. They spend their day swimming and flying in search of fish, and can often be seen diving underwater for prey. They are excellent divers, and have webbed feet for fast underwater propulsion.

 

Wikipedia Double-crested Cormorant

 

On my first day here, standing on the balcony overlooking the bay, I noticed a very large flock of cormorants down at the water. There were hundreds of the black sea birds, and they were synchronistically flying in the same direction. They swirled together in a great dance, slightly above the water’s surface.

 

Most of us have observed individual cormorants on land, spreading their wings, drying out. But this enormous flock all swooping together was new to me.

I had many other tasks to contend with, while we sort out the remains of our fire-damaged property, so I was soon off to something else. But throughout the week I continued to notice this phenomenon. I was seeing it almost every day, and always in the early morning.

Cormorants, SF Bay, Streets of San Francisco in background

Cormorants are colonial nesters, and at night they roost in large groups. From the balcony I noticed they have a favorite sea wall, where they congregate. When they take off in the morning, they often do so together.

 

Then I learned why they fly together:  for better fishing.

 

Although they do not always flock in groups this large, when it does occur, they form a line. The line of birds, close to the water, follow the fish underwater and chase them. More cormorants opportunistically join the flock, sometimes thousands.

 

They often fly in a “V” shape and there is a hierarchy to the front line; sometimes there are hundreds, sometimes just a dozen. They surge and swoosh and make abrupt directional changes, always following the fish underwater.

 

If the fish escape the flying predators, the cormorants quickly disperse.

 

But if the cormorants are triumphant and succeed in snatching the fish, then there is much splashing.

 

Ornithological Study on the Cormorant Fishing Activity 

 

Double-crested Cormorant

I went down to the water one morning this week to photograph the big flocks. I didn’t find the huge flocks, but I watched thousands of cormorants heading out for a day of fishing.

 

And while I was photographing the cormorants, I spotted a sea lion. I was watching the sea lion, waiting for it to re-surface after a dive, when the most marvelous thing happened.

 

A whale surfaced right in front of me. It gave the characteristic sigh sound, of breathing air, and breached the water’s surface. I enjoyed one second of seeing the whale’s barnacled back, and then it disappeared. Based on the size and color, and since it is their migration time, I am quite certain it was a gray whale.

 

These are a few of the riches of Richardson Bay, a marine sanctuary on the northern edge of the San Francisco Bay. I’m going to be here for at least three months, and am looking forward to sharing more with you.

 

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

Double-crested Cormorants in Richardson Bay, SF Bay. Photo: Richard Hinz

 

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The Bearded Bellbird

Bearded Bellbird, calling; Trinidad

Earlier this year we spent five nights in a Trinidad rainforest. While there, we were introduced to the Bearded Bellbird, a unique bird with a booming voice.

 

Named for the beard-like feathers on his throat, Procnias averano occur in a few areas of northern South America. See map below. Only the males have the “beard.”

 

The rainforest path we were on, Trinidad

A frugivorous bird, they feed on fruit and berries. They live high in the canopy, where you rarely see them…but always hear them.

 

The call is unmistakable, and loud, and carries very far. We heard it all day long and sometimes into the early evening:  a loud, staccato croaking that echoes throughout the forest.

 

Males make the call, insistently informing other bellbirds of their territory. The species is polygamous, and during mating season the male attracts the female with an elaborate song and dance. The rest of the year, like when we were there, they just project the croaking calls. Mating season or not, they spend 87% of daylight hours in calling territories within the forest.

 

Also on the trail: Golden Tegu Lizard

Click here for the sound recording, taken in the same rainforest where I was, at Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad.

 

Sometimes the bellbird’s call is incessant, like in this recording. But I never tired of it.

 

There are so many alien sounds in a rainforest, and it is often a surprise when you finally locate the creature. Some of the tiniest frogs can sound like huge, menacing mammals; while an animal that can kick your guts out, like the Australian cassowary, may have no warning call.

 

Agouti, Trinidad, watching us on the trail

Our first day there we were on a guided hike, and the guide took us right to the bird. The Bellbird was perched about 15′ off the ground (4.5 m). A couple of times I flinched from the racket.

 

For as loud and abrupt as the call was, I had imagined a larger bird. He was about the size of a pigeon, but for the volume he was projecting I expected an eagle. He shouted his croak for so long that finally, after everyone in our small group had observed and photographed from all angles, we left.

 

He was such a cool bird that the next day, sans guide, Athena and I went searching for the bellbird again. We went back down the same trail, following the bellowing croaks.

Bearded Bellbird, Trinidad

Everything seems so simple when you have a guide. Without the guide we somehow got off the main trail, lost in a dense forest.

 

Sweaty and bug-bitten, we eventually got back to the main trail, continued the bellbird pursuit for about a half hour. Regardless of how strikingly loud the call was, we could not find the bird anywhere. We have both been birding all over the world for 25 years, doggedly locating silent birds, tiny birds, and camouflaged birds deep in the brush. To not locate the caller of this loud and direct sound was stupefying.

 

But then a more important sound preempted the bird: the lunch bell.

 

So we reluctantly left the unfound bellbird, later learning another incredible feature of this bird: ventriloquism.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Violacious Euphonia, also on the trail

Procnias averano (Beaded Bellbird) range. Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

 

 

 

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Regulus calendula1.jpg

Photo courtesy Wikipedia

One of North America’s smaller birds, the ruby-crowned kinglet spends the winter in northern California. I have had the pleasure of watching this sprightly bird many times this week, in the urban neighborhood where I am staying.

 

At 3.5-4.3 inches long (9-11 cm), they are bigger than a hummingbird, smaller than a chickadee. In the winter they are not searching for a mate or singing; they are hunting. They eat mostly insects, like spiders and ants, but also berries and tree sap sometimes.

 

Photo credit: Dan Pancamo, Wikipedia

Wikipedia info here. 

 

Although the name suggests they have a ruby crown, this feature is rarely visible. I’ve seen this delightful bird at least a thousand times, and only saw the ruby crown twice. Once was 25 years ago after a big rain…his crest sparkled like a ruby. Only the males have this feature.

 

Photo credit: Dan Pancamo, Wikipedia

The kinglet migrates, they just arrived to California last month. They stay in milder climates, like the southern U.S. and west coast, throughout the winter. See map below.

 

A common bird, seen in urban, rural, and suburban settings, there are an estimated 90 million ruby-crowned kinglets across North America.  They appear restless, acrobatically flitting about and frequently flicking their wings, and so fast they are tricky to see sometimes.

 

Everyday I hear the kinglet. It’s not a melodious tune, for it is not mating time, but it is distinctive. It’s a ratcheting clicking sound, known as a contact call; I can hear it through the closed windows.

 

Ruby-crowned kinglet contact call. 

 

No matter what I’m doing, I hear the bird’s click-click and know that this perky little bird is outside the window cheering up my space.

 

Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Range Map

Coming Home

Our road

After a half month of mandatory absence, evacuating in a blur under raining ash and advancing fires, residents were allowed entry into their homes this week. One of the most disturbing days of my life.

 

We all have disturbing days. The longer we live, the more pain and sorrow we collect, watching loved ones leave this world, and worse. But I’ll not go into the details of that deeply painful day, I’ll let the photos tell that story.

Our road

This section of forest, above, used to be my “favorite maple” section. Big Leaf Maple trees, they wore big yellow lobed leaves every autumn, and bright green new leaves each spring.

 

There’s a sunrise unfolding as I write this from my temporary housing. It’s a stunning view of the San Francisco Bay, I’ll show you in a minute.

 

We lost all our out-buildings (three), but not the house. All tools, winter clothes, luggage, some office equipment; plus irreplaceable items like the Christmas ornaments we have collected for 30 years from all over the world, and 40 years of my journals.

 

Before and After of Athena’s Work Studio.

Before:

Studio “Before”

After:

Studio “After”

 

This week we’re staying on an inlet of the bay; and as we file claims, cancel accounts and trips, and inquire into temporary apartments, the tide flows in, and the tide flows out.

 

I’ve counted 27 bird species here this week, and one day a sea lion came to visit.

 

Before and After of Our Electrical Panel. The “before” photo was originally taken for the bird nest tucked in the center. A Pacific-slope Flycatcher raised four chicks there in 2006.

Before:

Electrical Panel “Before.” Flycatcher nest in center

After:

Electrical Panel “After”

 

We cannot return to our house for a few months until the electrical, plumbing, and septic systems are fixed. We were up there twice this week. On Monday, the first day, we walked around in goggles and face masks, wandered from one melted mass to another. The charred trees wavered overhead in the wind, threatening to topple.

 

On Thursday, when we returned, we found five men from the power company sitting in our driveway, one was eating potato chips. It was their lunchtime and they were there to cut down trees for the new power line.

 

San Francisco skyline and the Bay Bridge at dawn this week

 

Every day here in our Airbnb there’s a snowy egret that cruises in, and a kingfisher who arrives and departs with a rattle and a swoop. Willets linger on the rocks. Three Canada Geese spend every night here, and every morning they honk as they lift their big bodies into the sky.

 

Each day brings a new dawn, no matter where we are.  And the longer we live, the more glorious sunrises we have.

 

Willets, Richardson Bay

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Gracious thanks for all your warm comments, encouragement, and support, my friends and loved ones.

 

Our Forest, Our Cycles

Oak Titmouse

It is Day 12 of the California Wine Country fires, and I am one of the 15,000 people who remain under mandatory evacuation. Not only do burned trees continue to fall posing danger, but the electrical poles are gone. (See fire facts, at the end.)

 

Two weeks ago I lived in a forest, and that forest was my life, and the people and wild animals, trees, and plants there continue to call to me, even as I sleep elsewhere. So today I show you some of the wildlife from better times, with the fervent hope that they have found refuge somewhere, somehow.

Jackrabbit

Varied Thrush, California

The good news is that our house is still standing. Many of our neighbors lost their homes, and one neighbor lost his life. Gale-force winds combined with very dry earth conditions were the cause.

 

Our weather patterns in Northern California are different than many places. We do not have rain all summer, and this is how it has been as long as I have lived here (30+ years). We mow the grass once, sometimes twice, and then by July it stops growing.

 

The rains come in winter, slow down around March, then by around April or May they stop, and do not start again until the following November or December.

 

Some years it doesn’t rain in winter, those are the drought years. We had 4-6 years of drought until this past winter when it rained record amounts. The abundance of rain produced more vegetation, and it was glorious. We had more wildflowers than we’d seen in years, and the wildlife were more plentiful too, benefitting from the wealth of more plants, bugs, and moisture.

Indian Warrior

Shooting Stars

But when the summer came, like in all years, the grasses dried up. This year, as a result of the lively spring, we had more grasses than previous years.

 

You live long enough in one place, you see the weather patterns shift, you watch the cycles. I find this to be one of the pure joys of life on earth…the cycles.

Western skink (juvenile), California

Mountain Quail, California (male)

Gardeners notice the subtleties in their plantings, farmers adjust to the cycles daily, and wildlife lovers watch the variables in species.

 

In our forest we had more bugs this spring, which brought in more birds, and they were prolifically nesting. This brought in more hawks and mammals, all hunting. The spring frog-mating season was twice as long.

Adult Pacific Tree Frog

Northern Alligator Lizard, California

Striped Racer, Calif.

By September the berry trees were producing for a promising winter of red berries, and the numerous species of oaks were loaded with acorns. October was rife with busy woodpeckers and gray squirrels burying acorns.

 

But then we had a parching week-long heat wave. The deciduous trees didn’t lose their leaves gradually, instead the leaves burned up from the daily 100+ degree (F) temperatures.

 

After that the winds came in, huge trees blew over, brought down live electrical wires, and other mayhem ensued, with disastrous results.

Gold Wire and Ladybug

We’ll see what the winter brings. I am delighted to be here, living, to watch. And the good news is:  the earth heals, and so do her inhabitants.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

My humble thanks to each and every one of you who wrote kind and loving messages this past week. You brought sunshine during this difficult time.

 

Fire Facts:

There have been 250 wildfires in the Wine Country since October 8, burning 245,000 acres. Eleven thousand firefighters battled the fires, 100,000 people were evacuated, 42 people lost their lives (per Cal Fire). Most fires have now been 80% or more contained.

 

 

Aloha Big Island

Place of Refuge aka Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, my favorite place to snorkel

I have visited all the main Hawaiian Islands at least twice, always with a flutter of joy, but the one I fervently return to, my favorite, is the Big Island.

 

It’s not a typical tropical island, with white sand beaches, sand as fine as sugar. It’s paradise in a raw form, with fiery volcano eruptions, and warm Pacific waves meeting porous lava sprawls.

Kalij Pheasant, Big Island

The Big Island, also known as Hawaii Island, is built from five volcanoes, some of which are still active (see map below). It is the largest and youngest island of the chain. At it’s widest point, it is 93 miles (150 km) across.

 

The volcano activity is literally the foundation of this island. Eruptions have changed the shape of the land, sent residents scampering, closed roads, and claimed lives.

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, Place of Refuge, Hawaii

 

So what is it about the Big Island that makes it so glorious?

 

The green sea turtles foraging in the lava rocks.

Green Sea Turtle

 

The vibrant tropical fish and colorful coral.

Yellow tangs, Big Island

Pink coral, Big Island

 

Expansive ocean vistas and endless ways to ride the waves.

Big Island

 

Psychedelic  lava patterns with pooled puddles, crabs, and shorebirds.

Lava beach and sea

Crab, Big Island

 

Sitting beneath the rattling palm fronds, steeping in the magic of the black sand beaches.

Punalu’u Beach

 

Flowers and fragrance and geckos.

Hibiscus

 

Hawaiian gecko on our rental car

 

Adventuring inland and up into the mountains to see the native birds and forests.

Apapane, native Hawaiian bird, Big Island

Nene pair, Hawaiian goose, Hawaii’s (threatened) state bird

Jet birding, binoculars inside jacket, pouring rain

 

Sitting quietly in the parks, watching the colorful birds and Hawaiian families, graced by the gentle fragrance of plumeria.

Myna pair on palm frond

Java Sparrow, Hawaii

Red-crested Cardinal on a coconut

 

Driving across the island on Saddle Road, surrounded by miles and miles of lava fields.

Saddle Road, Big Island. Our rental car, left of center.

 

Hiking in the old volcano craters and lava tubes.

Kilauea Iki Crater with hikers on trail

 

Watching Kilauea Volcano smoke and spew.

Close-up, Halema’uma’u Crater at Kilauea Volcano

 

Relaxing on the lanai and watching the sun set.

 

Thanks for joining me on the Big Island…or as they say in Hawaii, Mahalo.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Five volcanoes of the Big Island. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Oilbirds in Trinidad

Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad, The Veranda

We were going to the Dunston Cave on the grounds of Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad, a tropical island in the southern Caribbean.

 

Our guide, a young man from Trinidad, warned us it would be a tricky hike–people always fell–because of the descent on a slippery slope into the cave. Hang onto the railings, he said.

 

We were embarking on a two-hour hike to see the rare and protected oilbirds. Due to the birds’ aversions to disturbance, no one is allowed into the cave without an escort guide from the Nature Centre.

 

He said when we got close we would hear the birds; they sounded like “someone getting strangled while vomiting.”

 

We spotted wildlife as we went.

Purple Honeycreeper (male), Trinidad

Agouti, Trinidad

Tufted Coquette (hummingbird), male, Asa Wright Nature Centre

 

There were steep hills and narrow trails, thick growth and fragrant whiffs of a thriving, tropical environment. Several times we passed camera traps that record sightings of armadillo, raccoon, and an occasional ocelot.

 

He pointed out a hairy tarantula hidden inside the hand railing, and a white hawk posed for us.

White Hawk, Trinidad

Oilbirds live in just a few places in South America. This site is said to be the most accessible for viewing the oilbirds, hosts a stable breeding colony.  Wikipedia overview. 

 

Steatornis caripensis are the only nocturnal fruit-eating bird in the world. They forage at night, and augment their vision using echolocation,  a technique usually associated only with bats.

Vines outside of Dunston Cave, Trinidad

Their diet is palm and laurel fruit, and this bird is big. The size of a hawk. They measure 16-19 inches long (40-49 cm), and have a wingspan of 37 inches (95 cm).

Dunston Cave stream, Trinidad

The common name “oilbird” comes from days gone by when the chicks were captured and boiled down to make oil. Indigenous people and early settlers used the oil for cooking and lamp-lighting fuel.  Fortunately, those days are over.

 

For the final descent we were surrounded by high rock walls with dense foliage, streaming vines, ferns, and palms. In spite of the slickness, it was enchanting…until we heard them.

Dunston Cave, black crevasse in center. Green railings guided us.

Sounded like wild grunting pigs. In front of us were towering canyon walls with a very narrow, dark crevasse; this was the cave. A shallow stream flowed into it.

 

The birds were screeching, loudly, but we saw no birds. It was completely dark in there. During the day they roost on ledges inside the cave. Though our group was about a dozen, we could only go in three people at a time; no flash photography permitted. They’re very skittish to any disturbance.

Friends in our group navigating their footing, the guide (in green) at Dunston Cave

 

Oilbirds, Dunston Cave, Trinidad

Oilbirds on ledge inside Dunston Cave, Trinidad

There is a whole crew of naturalists who tend to and protect the oilbirds, climbing a precarious ladder, recording nests and nesting activity, and submitting scientific information. Annual oilbird counts have been conducted here since 1969. To date there is a population of 183 birds.

 

We weren’t there long, so as not to disturb them, and soon we turned around and climbed back up. It was hot and the climb was steep, a man in our group fainted, but he was okay.

 

As we emerged from below, I thought about this remarkable bird that survived a history of persecution, perched on the ledge and screeching inside that cave, now healthy and reproducing.

 

But just then the Bearded Bellbird called. We stole off to find yet another avian oddity and delight.

 

All photos: Athena Alexander

Sending our warmest thoughts to the folks of the Caribbean during this furious hurricane season.

Map of Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago, bottom right. Courtesy scuba-diving-smiles.com