Point Reyes

Point Reyes, Tomales Point, Pacific Ocean side

 

Tule elks (male), Point Reyes

 

Pt. Reyes from Tomales Point Trail. McClure’s Beach.

 

About a two-hour drive north of San Francisco is an expansive park called Point Reyes. Geologically it is a large cape that extends off the Pacific coast. Technically it is Point Reyes National Seashore…locals call it Point Reyes.

 

It is an entire peninsula with ocean coastline, beaches, and dunes; rolling hills; forests; dairy ranches; hiking trails and more. The land area is 70,000 acres (283 sq. km). It is my favorite of all places to hike in Northern California.

 

Point Reyes Wikipedia

 

Point Reyes is home to 490 bird species, 40 species of land animals, and a dozen species of marine mammals. Pods of California gray whale migrate through here. Two resident mammal species nearly went extinct: tule elk and elephant seals.

 

A breeding colony of elephant seals can be seen from December through March.

 

Elephant Seals on the beach, Point Reyes near Chimney Rock

 

The coast is rocky and often foggy, typical of Northern California, and this peninsula juts ten miles into the ocean…so far that it is notorious for hundreds of shipwrecks.  See map below.

 

Sir Francis Drake’s ship is said to have hit damaging rocks here in 1579. The crew hauled The Golden Hinde up to the beach for repairs.

 

Centuries later, but in the same general vicinity, we came upon this tiny cemetery in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Experienced life-savers succumbed to treacherous waves while helping passengers of shipwrecked boats.

 

Life-saver Cemetery, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Today the Coast Guard cruises overhead, maintaining public safety.

 

Coast Guard helicopter at Point Reyes

 

On the craggy mountain ridges overlooking the Pacific Ocean, tule elk herds graze on protected land.

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Hikers share the trails with elk herds. Sometimes when the fog is very thick you can hear their impressive bugling without actually seeing an animal. The first time this happened I was nervous, didn’t like not knowing where they were. But now when I’m there I hope for it, I like the mystery.

 

Point Reyes Tule Elk

 

At this time of year, late summer, the grass has turned brittle and brown. Wild amaryllis flowers, common name “naked ladies,” can be seen clumped in the grass. They have a heady fragrance–sweet, like bubble gum.

 

Wild Amaryllis, aka Naked Ladies

 

While hiking along the grassy trails to Abbotts Lagoon, we came upon California quail, brush rabbits, and many sparrows.

Abbotts Lagoon, Point Reyes

 

California Quail (male) in lupine

 

Last summer’s visit yielded a coyote.

 

Coyote, Point Reyes, California

 

Every spring we find nesting swallows.

 

Barn Swallow nestlings, Point Reyes

 

One summer a few years ago, Athena and I decided to go out after dark in search of a rare owl known to live here, the spotted owl.

 

We knew the trail well enough that we walked without light. Our reasoning for walking in the pitch black dark–which in retrospect doesn’t seem quite so wise–was that we would come upon the owl and hear it, without it being frightened by us. Once we located its hoot, we could use the light to see it.

 

But as we tripped along the trail, we heard the unmistakable breathing of a big mammal…very near. When we switched on the light, we came face-to-face with a really big buck.

 

We were all three very startled.

 

We backed off, gave him some room, and he continued to graze. We never did hear or see the owl.

 

I could fill a book with the outdoor adventures we have had in our 30 years exploring Point Reyes. You may know that feeling: when you realize you have spent most of your life in a place…and loved every minute.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Header photo, also Point Reyes: Tomales Bay. You would never guess that below Tomales Bay lies the San Andreas Fault.

 

Point Reyes, California. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

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North American Prairies

Prairie meadow with black-eyed Susan wildflowers, Wisconsin

Pronghorn, California

Bison, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

The prairies of North America, unique to the continent’s central region, have intrigued and enlightened residents for centuries. Born and raised in America’s prairies, I continue to take great pleasure in our grassland expanses.

 

The history of the continent’s grasslands has been interesting, you can read about it below in the two links. Today we are in the fortunate period of a resurgence of prairie restoration.

 

Carrizo Plains, California

 

Red-winged blackbird, Horicon Marsh, WI

 

With the experience of previous generations, we have discovered that natural ecosystems, like grasslands, provide profound balance and abundant sustainable activity.

 

Prairie Ecology and History

 

Prairie Wikipedia

 

The deep roots of the grasses absorb rain and nutrients, preventing erosion and run-off. The grassland absorption of nutrients and minerals creates rich soil and productive farming. The grasses and forbs also capture carbon, an important process with the current threat of global warming.

 

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

 

Not all prairies are the same; some are wet, some are dry. The grasses are not all the same, either: tall, short, or a mixture of the two, depending on precipitation.

 

Colorado

 

In addition to the Great Plains of North America in the center of the continent, there are also prairie habitats in several parts of the U.S. and southern Canada. See map below.

 

Savannah habitats can include shallow waterways like marshes or vernal pools; some have occasional buttes. Trees are typically rare, except for what might grow alongside rivers.

 

With the absence of trees and mountain formations, unobstructed gale-force winds are common.

 

If you’ve ever been in grassland regions, you know about the storms. Sometimes they are glorious. Purple-black clouds roil for hours until at last the skies ominously open, bringing rain that actually smells sweet. Dramatic lightning and booming thunder.

 

Sometimes, admittedly, it’s not so glorious…it’s terrifying. This is where tornadoes occur.

 

Impending Storm on the Pawnee Grasslands

 

Wildlife in the prairies are dependent on open expanses, grasses and forbs. Grazers like bison, pronghorn antelope, deer, and elk live here.

Pronghorn, male, California

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Insects here are grasshoppers, moths, beetles, and butterflies. Small mammals like rodents, reptiles, and prairie dogs occupy this habitat. Jackrabbits and coyote too.

 

Prairie Dog, Colorado

 

The vast open plains are also home to many bird species: raptors and burrowing owls, seed-eating birds, field birds like bobwhites and quail.

 

California Quail

In addition, large migrating bird populations pass through the continent’s grassland habitats.

 

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

 

One spring we went to a prairie preserve in Texas in search of the rare prairie chickens native to these grasslands. We were unable to find the prairie chickens, they are now extremely rare, but we were treated to many prairie sights.

Texas

Several male dickcissels, seed-eating songbirds who occupy the prairie grasses, made their way to the top of the grass to vie for female partners.

Prairie Dickcissel, Attwater Preserve, Texas

Many plains and prairies show a vibrant display of wildflowers every spring. With the huge expanse of wildflowers brings the pollinating bees.

Texas prairie wildflowers

Western Meadowlark, Carrizo Plains, California

 

We tend to visit oceans, coasts, mountains, or cities when we travel, and the Plains (the word means ordinary) are not attractive to many folks.

 

But I love the flat grasslands redolent with sweet-smelling grasses and fresh air. Skies are open, grass is golden. Bison and elk graze without concern, meadow birds rest on fence posts or disappear in the tall grass.

 

Thanks for joining me.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

For early American prairie experiences, read Willa Cather. 

 

Bison Bull, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

Image result for north american prairie map

North American Prairie Map. Courtesy rediscovertheprairie.org.

 

Bird Life in Africa

Red-billed Hornbill pair, Zambia

Like every continent on this planet, Africa’s weather and terrain are what define the bird populations. But Africa’s bird populations soar to the top of the continent list with the huge size of land area, big game and extensive wildlife, vast wilderness and undeveloped expanses.

 

Here are some of my favorites.

 

Lilac-breasted Roller, Botswana

 

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Botswana

 

Many bird species occupy the waterways of Africa.

 

The hamerkop is a medium-sized wading bird related to pelicans. They eat fish and amphibians, sometimes rodents and insects.

Hamerkop, Zambia

 

We watched this ambitious rufous-bellied heron struggle for over a quarter hour with a wiggly catfish. Seems impossible, given the size of the catfish, but eventually the heron swallowed it whole.

Rufous-belied Heron eating a catfish, Botswana

 

On sandy patches near the Chobe River, we came upon a flock of African Skimmers skimming the water for fish. Like all skimmer species, their lower mandible (bill) is longer than the upper mandible, enabling the bird to scoop up fish while flying.

African Skimmer, Botswana

 

Elsewhere in Botswana, the Okavango Delta is a swampy inland basin that is home to many species of water birds. Wading birds, with their typically long legs, could be seen everywhere.

Saddle-billed Stork, Okavango Delta. Photo by A. Alexander.

African Jacana

 

Flamingos are probably the most well-known long-legged wader. We found many colonies on lakes in Kenya and Tanzania. On different occasions, we watched a jackal and a hyena stalking and circling the flamingos…a good reason for this bird to stay in large, safe groups.

Flamingos, Tanzania

 

Kingfishers, a world-wide bird species always seen waterside, are in many parts of Africa. There are 18 species in Africa, here are two.

Giant Kingfisher, Botswana

Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Zambia

 

Another extensive aspect of Africa are the grasslands. The word “Serengeti” translates from the Maasai for “endless prairies.” Life here revolves around the grass.

 

Watching an ostrich run across the African grasslands is a supreme honor. They are the world’s largest bird and are prey to many hungry beasts, so their speed is paramount to survival. They run up to 45 miles (70 km) per hour.

Ostrich, male, Kenya. Photo by A. Alexander.

 

Other interesting grassland birds include the secretary bird and guineafowl.

Secretary Bird, Zambia

 

Vulturine Guineafowl, Kenya, Africa

 

Weaver birds build elaborate nests from the surrounding grass.

Weaver nest, Zambia

More about Weaver Nests in a previously written post.

 

In addition to water birds and grass birds, cohabitation between mammals and birds is fascinating. It is, after all, a land of extremes in terms of wildlife.

 

This goose and crocodile seem to have adopted the “live and let live” doctrine…at least for the moment.

Crocodile and Egyptian Goose, Zambia

 

Oxpecker birds, endemic to the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa, can often be found on the bodies of ungulates. They eat the ticks that annoyingly nestle into the mammals’ hide. Some sources say it is symbiotic, others say the birds are parasitic.

Oxpeckers on Sable Antelope, Botswana

 

This buffalo and oxpecker strike me as an unlikely pair.

African Buffalo with Oxpecker on the far left, Botswana. Photo by A. Alexander.

 

These cheeky cattle egrets were hitching a ride on hippos in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

Ngorongoro Crater, hippos and cattle egrets

 

Another constantly occurring phenomenon on the eat-or-be-eaten plains of Africa is the hierarchy of species that gather around a freshly killed animal. While lions, cheetahs, or hyenas are often thought of as the fierce predators, the birds inevitably line up for their share of the carcass too.

 

And with large prey come large predatory birds.

 

One day along the Chobe River we had the rare opportunity of observing a pack of wild dogs hunting. They killed an impala and celebrated around it for at least half an hour. After the dogs were satiated and had left, these vultures moved in. You can see how big they are next to the antelope.

Vultures with prey, Botswana

 

This group of birds came in after the wild cats had left, settled into what remained of a baby elephant.

Vultures and Storks on carcass, Botswana

 

In Africa, birds are not the harmless little fluttery creatures we see in the rest of the world…but then it takes a special creature to live in the wilds of Africa. Thanks for joining the birds and me on this incredible continent.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Southern Ground Hornbill, Zambia. Photo Athena Alexander.

 

The Beat of Summer

Black-headed Grosbeak (male)

Although today is officially the first day of summer, this whole month leading up to it has been a wild, thriving bonanza in Northern California. By 5:30 dawn is underway and the cacophony of birdsong has already begun.

 

Slightly inland, temperatures usually range in the Fahrenheit 90s  (32-37 C.), with an occasional day of cooling, coastal fog.

 

The hot temperatures and dry chaparral habitat bring out the Western fence lizards, skinks, and snakes. This year we have had the pleasure of many lizards and skinks.

 

Skink, California

 

One day a confused lizard somehow got into the house. I came in and found it trying to climb our living room steps; fortunately the carpet was impeding progress. I coaxed the lizard, an alligator lizard, into a clean milk bottle and delivered him back outdoors.

 

Northern Alligator Lizard, California

 

The birds take advantage of these long days. Many species have chicks in the nest, and industriously use the maximum daylight hours to snap up insects and worms for their nestlings.

 

Some birds are finishing their nesting like the titmice, violet-green swallows, and western bluebirds. Others, like the Pacific-slope flycatchers, are already feeding a second brood before they head back south.

 

Oak Titmouse, California

 

Violet-green swallow, California

 

Juvenile Anna’s hummingbirds have been off the nest for about a month now, and are easy to spot because they zoom up to everything with defiant purpose, even if it’s inanimate like my cup of tea. Adults don’t waste their energy like that, they have to be alert and vigilant to defend their territory.

 

Anna’s hummingbird (adult male), California. Can you see his tongue?

 

Steller’s jays, a handsome and irreverent bird, also have juveniles right now and not a day goes by without at least one squawk-fest. I watch them. They squawk about nothing. I think they’re learning to voice.

 

Steller’s Jay, adult, California

 

The yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) plants have unfurled thousands of tiny white flowers these past few weeks.  I’ve read that the nectar tastes bitter, but the shrubs are loaded with butterflies, sometimes six or eight at once–all sizes and colors.

 

Western Tiger Swallowtail on Yerba Santa

 

Bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax), also a native, is more prolific this year than any other year in my 18 here.  Every single plant burned to the ground in the 2017 wildfires; but since then we cleaned up the blackened stubs, and after a rain they earnestly began sprouting leaves. With fire-resistant rhizomes, they grew a full grassy bouquet, and recently each plant extended a tall green stem with one club-like flower.

 

Bear Grass, California, June 2019

 

Four species of flycatchers, the blue-gray gnatcatchers and black-throated gray warblers are all here for the summer, calling from the trees reminding me the lively summer has arrived.

 

Residents like the finches, nuthatches, woodpeckers, wrens, vireos and raptors are also busy nesting. Juncos built a nest under our front steps. This week I observed a flicker nesting in a tree snag.

 

But it’s the black-headed grosbeaks who steal the show. Big bird with bold colors, a flash of white in flight; and the most heavenly melodious song reverberating throughout the day.

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

 

Pheucticus melanocephalus are here only a short time. The males arrive in April, the females follow, and the spring activities begin. Right now we have immature and adult grosbeaks flying in every direction, sometimes five or six at the feeder at once. By August they’ll be gone.

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (female), California

 

We keep the feeders filled with their favorite seed (black oil sunflower); and the water trays are brimming with refreshment for the hot, parched days.

 

So many goals I have, but none so easy to know or do as keeping the grosbeaks happy.

 

At dinnertime the jackrabbit comes in to feed on grass and weeds; and the immature grosbeaks continue their plea that has lasted all day: a wavy whine, feed me, feed me.

 

Black-tailed Jackrabbit, California (Lepus californicus)

 

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (immature), California

 

It’s not until 9:00 that the sun sets and the day quiets down…only for the night creatures to begin their watch. First the bats come out, frenetic silhouettes disappearing into the night. The frogs start their chorus, the crickets their stridulating chirping; and by the time it’s totally dark, the occasional deep hoots of a great horned owl lull me to sleep.

 

The force of life, the beat of summer. Happy summer to my northern hemispheric friends.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Pacific Chorus Frog, California

 

Range Map for Black-headed Grosbeak

Range map for black-headed grosbeak. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org.

Two Night Drives

Black and White Owl, Belize

It was the same territory we had traversed every day in this Belizean rainforest, but a very different world opened up once the jungle night unfolded.

 

Night drives involve a vehicle with a strong spotlight hooked up to the battery, and one or two guides who drive and spot. Athena and I stood in the back of a pick-up truck–hanging on, dodging palm fronds, and swatting at mosquitoes.

 

Baird’s Tapir, adult female, Belize

Tapirs were a great find, and one of our favorite adventures of the whole trip. More about that: Tapir Time.

 

But we came upon so many other creatures too.

 

Mottled Owl, Belize

 

Owls and bats are a big draw on night drives, and the Belizean forest did not disappoint. I’m always happy to see bats because it means there is a balance in the ecosystem. We saw about 20 individual bats on our two night drives. The lights on the vehicle brought them in, for the insects, then they’d spin away into the black oblivion.

 

We spotted this spectacled owl with a snake. When we drove off, we watched the owl carry the Fer-de-lance snake, highly venemous, back to a palm tree where we suspected there was a nest.

 

Spectacled Owl with Fer-de-lance snake

 

Owls and bats are not the only nocturnal flyers. There were also common pauraques and northern potoos, bird species in the nightjar family (Caprimulgiformes).

 

Pauraques were especially prevalent in this rainforest. When they aren’t flying, they are on the ground, camouflaged in leaf litter; this parent was hiding a little one.

 

Common Parauque adult sitting on top of chick

 

They feed on insects, and were attracted to the constant bug flurry around the lodge’s landscape lights. I heard them every night, so loud that sometimes they woke me up.

 

Sound of pauraque in night forest. 

 

At one point, the driver spotted a wild cat called a margay. We had a two-second look at it before he or she disappeared into the forest. Camouflage spots, quick and stealthy…gone in a flash.

 

Margay. Photo: Brian Gratwicke, courtesy Wikipedia.

They are small, the size of an ocelot, native to Belize, and nocturnal. Their populations are declining, so we were happy to see this rare wild cat.

 

There were large moths and small; beady eyes looking out of the tangled trees; lots of croaking frogs. We came upon a raccoon who was hunting high in a tree; and deer in their nighttime mode, frozen in place by the spotlight. This mammal emerged out of the shadows and it took a few seconds to see it was a tapir.

 

Tapir (center) coming out of the jungle shadows

 

Every day we saw cattle in a pasture on the edge of the forest. At dawn we were there chasing parrots and toucans, while the cattle unabashedly stared at us. When we came back at night, their shining eyes were still staring at us.

 

Cattle in pasture

 

One night we were walking on the lodge grounds when we heard a plop, and found this cane toad, a native.

 

Cane toad, Rhinella marina

 

It’s cooler at night, and the moving vehicle creates a wind that feels luxurious after a long, sweaty day. But the best part of the night drives is seeing this mysterious nocturnal world come alive.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander except margay.

Baird’s Tapir, juvenile and mother, Belize

 

 

Long-tailed Birds

Resplendent Quetzal (male), Costa Rica

 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher (male), Belize

Every once in a while I come across a bird with a spectacularly long tail. It happened last month with this Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Belize. When the bird flies, his long tail ripples gracefully in the wind.

 

One day long ago, while I was still in birding classes, I was standing in my mother’s backyard, a suburb near Dallas not far from fields. I looked up and saw a beautiful bird on the telephone lines with the longest tail I had ever seen in my life. Later I was to learn it was the scissor-tailed flycatcher, not uncommon in Texas.

 

And since then, I have had the pleasure of collecting many beautiful images of birds with lengthy tails.

 

We were flying down a Mexican highway in a cab one day, when we spotted this jay on the lines. Screeched to a halt.

 

Black-throated Magpie Jay (male), Mexico

 

In some long-tailed bird species, only the male has the long tail; in other species, like motmots, both genders have the long tail.

 

There are numerous evolution theories as to why a species has a long tail. Most theories posit that the male’s long tail is a signal to the female of good breeding foundation.

 

Some species have cord-like streamers, whereas others, like my favorite the resplendent quetzal, have more of a double ribbon for a tail.

 

Motmots, a colorful Neotropic bird, have long tails shaped like racquets.

 

Turquoise-browed Motmot, Costa Rica

 

This hummingbird has a racquet-tail too.

Booted Racket-tail Hummingbird (male), Peru

 

One of the most striking birds on the planet, the resplendent quetzal male has a long tail that sparkles in the sunlight. For an hour we watched this male in a Costa Rican mountain rainforest eating avocadoes. Then when he was satiated, he flew on.

 

We instinctively ran after him, enchanted by the magic, the beauty.

 

Undulating behind this showy bird, the iridescent tail shimmered and flowed in the most natural ribbon-like spectacle. Eventually the bird disappeared into the forest.

 

Resplendent Quetzal (male), Costa Rica

 

In the red-billed tropicbird, the male’s tail streamer is slightly longer than the female’s, about 4.7 inches (12 cm).

 

We once went to a breeding colony of tropicbirds on the island of Little Tobago in the West Indies. The tropicbirds were competing with frigatebirds over food, and the guide told us that sometimes a frigatebird would pluck at a tropicbird’s long streamers, try to pull it out.

 

Red-billed Tropicbird, Little Tobago Island, West Indies

 

Birds that wear party streamers for tails:  they make you want to sing and dance and go a little wild.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Indian Peacock in Texas

 

Spring Wildlife Rituals

Jackrabbit

Northern California is now about a month or two into spring. The hillsides are emerald, wildflowers abound. Almost every summer migrant bird species has arrived; and all the animals have begun their spring rituals.

Wild Douglas iris, California

Violet-green swallows, black-headed grosbeaks, and Pacific-slope flycatchers have arrived from Mexico and Central America. They will breed here, then leave in autumn, hopefully with a new brood.

 

Violet-green Swallow, male, California

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (male); a highly anticipated spring arrival

 

Pacific-slope flycatcher adult singing of life

Additional bird species have also arrived, in their usual order, some earlier in spring, some later. Flycatchers, tanagers, warblers, gnatcatchers, and more.

 

The violet-green swallows, oak titmice, and western bluebirds always vie for the nest boxes. Our human spring ritual is to clean out the boxes; their avian spring ritual is to squabble over them. It makes no difference how many boxes we offer, the territory battles somehow have to occur.

 

They cling to their real estate amidst a swirl of swooping competitors, and eventually it all gets settled out.

Violet-green swallow on nest box, California

 

Western Bluebird on nest box, California

 

A few of the reptiles are starting to show their faces. They come out of hibernation on warm days: look around, absorb the sun, do their dances, then return to their burrows when the evening starts it’s chill.

 

This week I saw about five western fence lizards

Western Fence Lizard, California

and at least ten skinks.

Skink, California

 

Twice we found snake tracks in powdery dirt, but no snake. It looked like a wooden pencil was dragged through the dirt. The snakes will linger longer when the earth has warmed up more, rattle at us if we unknowingly get too close.

 

This is a rattlesnake in our front yard from a previous summer; they keep our rodent population under control. That’s a big one.

Western Rattlesnake, sub-species Northern Pacific; Calif. Rattle (white) at far right end of tail, 6-8 rattles.

 

Then there are the frogs, Pacific chorus frogs. For the last three months they have been in full symphonic mode at night, singing at the neighbor’s pond, each male singing loudly–the louder the better–to attract a mate.

 

They require water for laying eggs, so the mating rituals begin at the pond’s edge, with the male filling up his throat with air, then croaking and crooning.

 

Starting in late January, through February and March, I sat in the dark living room with the window open, listening appreciatively, for as long as I could stand the frigidity. The sound came in thick waves, swelling, and swelling more.

 

Now there’s warm air coming through the night window, and the cacophony has dwindled, signaling that most mating has occurred.

 

Meanwhile, the female lays 400-750 eggs. They are jelly-like beads, in clumps that stick to the reeds and twigs. The frogs have to lay so many because it is tasty caviar to most other wildlife.

 

Soon the tadpoles will sprout little legs and gradually their entire bodies will transform from water-swimming pollywogs to land-hopping frogs.

Tadpole on a leaf…

Tadpole with frog legs

then frog.

Pacific Chorus Frog, California

The adult frog is very small, about two inches long (5 cm). They keep our spiders and insects in check.

 

Warm days, growing longer. New life abounds in many different forms…reminding us that miracles are everywhere.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) and Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly, Angel Island, CA