Black and White Friday

We are often attracted to the colorful wildlife on this planet, but for today, Black Friday, let’s take a look at our charismatic black-and-white animals.

There are all sorts of black-and-white animals, domestic-bred and wild, mammals and insects and everything in between. As always, I will focus exclusively on the wild animals here.

Zebras are probably the most fascinating, for their psychedelic coats.

The human fascination for zebras goes back centuries, and so do the scientific theories for their striped patterns.

In studies of the evolution of wild animals, defense is usually the key consideration. One defense theory for zebras is that in a group of them the striped patterning makes it difficult for a predator to focus on just one individual, a sort of camouflage.

Take one look at a zebra group (below), and you see firsthand how your eyes have a hard time focusing on any one individual.

Aptly, a collective noun for zebras is “dazzle.”

There are many more zebra-stripe theories, read more here: Zebra Wikipedia under Stripes

In contrast, defense for skunks, another black-and-white, is notoriously their smell. That strong obnoxious liquid they spray is a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals. Most predators rarely attack skunks due to the foul spray…except for one.

Great horned owls are the only predator to routinely attack skunks, due to the skunks’ poor sense of smell. They take down all six skunk species, even the heavier-bodied striped skunk species seen here.

Orca whales, badgers, pandas, and many more wild mammals have black-and-white coloring.

I recently saw a fellow walker with a Dalmatian dog, and that got me thinking about all the domestic-bred pied animals. The list keeps growing.

The black-and-white colobus monkeys, one of my favorite monkey species, are an Old World monkey. Sitting in a jeep one day on Mount Kenya, I heard a lot of rustling in the trees overhead. What a pleasant surprise to see these animated monkeys swinging from tree to tree, their fluffy white tails illuminated by the sun.

Our flightless birds the penguins–a familiar and loveable black-and-white presence on earth.

These Galapagos Penguins, below, are the only penguin species that live north of the equator. They typically live in caves and crevices for protection. Now listed as Endangered, this trio was under mangrove roots along the shoreline.

Of the flying birds, there are many black-and-whites.

Some are more familiar like woodpeckers, gulls, terns, and magpies.

This magpie photo reflects the color blue (on the rump), often not seen in a bird that is primarily black and white. Only if the sun is shining just right does an iridescent color appear. I’ve seen it at different times in magpies, the pied kingfisher, and bufflehead ducks, to name a few.

Here are two lesser-known black-and-white birds in the U.S.

These striking black-and-white birds reside on other continents.

Lastly, it is interesting to note that many mostly-white birds often have black wing tips. It is theorized that the white feathers without pigment are not as strong as feathers with pigment. Dark wings or wing tips are thought to provide extra protection for the feathers most vulnerable to abrasion during flight.

Migrating birds who fly long distances, like the American white pelican and snow geese below, may benefit from their black wing tips.

While it seems that few things in life are ever just black and white, today we found some wonderment in the wildlife that is.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

San Francisco’s Ocean Beach

One of San Francisco’s most spacious venues is Ocean Beach, a long tract of fresh air and open skies. Today, as in centuries past, it attracts residents and tourists.

San Francisco is not the most populous city in the U.S. (it’s 17th), but it is definitely packed with people. There are almost 874,000 people on this small 47-square-mile (121 sq. km.) peninsula, making it the second most densely populated large city in the country.

When residents want to stretch out, they head for Ocean Beach. Folks of all ages can run or walk, plop down in the sand, share bonfires with friends, or sort out their congested thoughts. And you don’t have to fight for a parking space.

Cold Pacific currents arrive here fromĀ Alaska, making the waters at Ocean Beach numbingly inhospitable. With the frigid temperatures, frequent fog and strong winds, you won’t find many people in the water.

Surfers, of course, are the exception. But even the stalwart surfers, bounced around by brutal waves, wear wetsuits.

In addition to this five-mile stretch of sand, there are adjacent attractions too. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area has an extensive purview. Land’s End, the Cliff House, and Sutro Heights Park are on the northern end of the beach, while Fort Funston is at the southern end. All have stunning views and room to roam.

In the middle is the Beach Chalet restaurant, two towering windmills, and two streets leading the way to Golden Gate Park.

San Francisco’s longest beach also has a long history.

Sutro Baths was a glass-enclosed entertainment complex of numerous saltwater pools that opened in 1896.

Circa 1896, courtesy Wikipedia.

There is an entertaining film clip that Thomas Edison made in 1897 of the Sutro Baths, at this link:

Sutro Baths Wikipedia

The ruins of the Baths are still visible today.

It was in the later 1800s when railway and trolley lines were developed, delivering visitors from the city to this remote windswept expanse of sand dunes.

This began nearly a century of animated seaside attractions at Ocean Beach.

There have been several incarnations of The Cliff House, a restaurant that first opened in 1863.

This is the Cliff House, below, last week on a foggy day. It is undergoing another reincarnation and due to re-open next year.

And over the years, two additional fun spots drew visitors at Ocean Beach: Playland, a 10-acre amusement park from 1913-1972; and Fleishhacker Pool, then one of the largest outdoor swimming pools in the world, from 1925-1971.

If you talk to San Franciscans who spent their childhood days at Playland or Fleishhacker Pool, it is a great joy to watch their eyes light up.

This is Ocean Beach and Playland in the 1930s and 1940s.

Still left over from the glory days of Playland, the Camera Obscura, one of my personal favorite Ocean Beach spots, sits on a seaside perch behind the Cliff House. It is an old-fashioned pinhole camera that you walk into; it presents live-time images of the beach and sea.

Here is a link to a post I wrote about it: Camera Obscura, San Francisco

With today’s instantly available entertainment at our fingertips, the tranquility of Ocean Beach is now the draw.

And, as it has been for centuries, the wind and fog continue to embrace us, while the waves, as always, rhythmically shape this blessed expanse of ocean and sand.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

A Salute to Summer

As we say farewell to summer, here is a small sample of the wildlife who entertained us these past few months. Summer provided us with a celebrated array of birds, insects, mammals and reptiles.

At the beginning of the season in May, we watched dozens of birds nesting around our property.

We found these bluebird eggs inside one of our nest boxes.

In addition to the usual resident nesters–swallows, bluebirds, juncos, chickadees, titmice, jays, towhees, wrens, and more–we hosted numerous migrant species.

Flycatchers, an often-overlooked migrant bird, were in abundance.

This Pacific-slope flycatcher mother (below, in center) vigilantly protected her nest and brood for many weeks. She chose a completely burned tree in which to nest, probably for uninterrupted visibility of predators.

This flycatcher, like the other migrant birds, had an industrious summer routine. They arrived in May, prepared a nest and filled it with eggs; then assisted their fledglings to become strong and independent. In August they all headed back home.

On cue with the summer routine, black-headed Grosbeaks arrived, and produced young ones.

The violet-green swallows arrived in April, vying with the bluebirds for nest box real estate. By July the sky was filled with soaring, acrobatic juveniles.

We welcomed several warbler species as well. Although we don’t have the same volume of spring migrating warblers on the west coast as the east coast or Midwest, every year we have several species who migrate through in the shoulder seasons, like this hermit warbler and orange-crowned warbler.

They come in when we turn on the yard sprinkler, a favorite summer pastime for all of us.

Throughout the summer a pair of sibling Cooper’s hawks, born here in spring, were prevalent in our backyard. I wrote about them in a previous post: Cooper’s Hawks, The Next Generation.

Their new prowess started out clumsy, but quickly became skilled, intimidating the wise and wary California quail from nesting on our property. Fortunately we saw large quail coveys with chicks all over our mountain.

We didn’t see as many snakes this year, but we had an abundance of Western fence lizards. Now, in early September, we have lots of little pinky-sized baby lizards skittering across the dust and rocks.

Living in drought here in Northern California, we have had our difficulties with fire and smoke lately. So far, the worst fires are a couple hundred miles north of us. It is a tense and smoky situation for us, but disastrous for our friends in the north.

During this current drought, water is a precious commodity. Our humble water tray offerings attract an animated parade of wildlife, day and night.

A bobcat comes through several nights a week.

Other regular night creatures include great horned owls, who frequently serenade us with duets, and deafening cicada choruses throughout every night. Dark dawns bring us individual bats silently zig-zagging the sky.

For comical daytime entertainment, we have a quirky gray squirrel who has taken to covering his back and head with his tail. He does it all the time.

Maybe he’s just an odd dude, or maybe he’s decided to use his tail as an umbrella to shield from the blazing sun. Whatever his story, we love him. We call him Davy, for his resemblance to a Davy Crockett hat.

Brush rabbits appreciate the water tray too.

It’s been so hot and dry lately that birds we don’t ordinarily see at the water tray came in this summer for drinks and baths. The outdoor camera captures this screech owl at the water tray regularly.

Yesterday I noticed this Cooper’s hawk at the water tray for an hour. We have also watched him vigorously bathing here. On sizzling hot days, he stands right in the water, probably regulating his body temperature.

I do love summer for the plethora of wildlife and their activities, but I am looking forward to the fall, too. Cooler temperatures and some rain to douse the earth would be dreamy.

But what a lively and lovely summer it has been.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

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.

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.

San Francisco: 12 Iconic Sites

Now that travel has begun to open up after Covid, we are seeing more tourists return to San Francisco. Here are 12 of the popular sites for visitors and locals of all ages.

1. Golden Gate Bridge

Probably the most famous bridge in the world, Golden Gate Bridge is 1.7 miles long (2.7 km) and hosts cars, trucks, pedestrians and cyclists. Its art deco design, striking International Orange color, and numerous suspension cables encase each person crossing with a sense of awe.

2. Alcatraz Island

As you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, you can see the rock island of Alcatraz prominently centered in the bay. Formerly a military fort and prison, maximum security federal penitentiary, and civil rights protest occupation, today it is one of the top tourist attractions in San Francisco.

3. Cable Cars

One of San Francisco’s most exhilarating tourist activities, a cable car ride is a spirited mix of old-time travel through the neighborhoods of this modern city. Climbing and descending steep hills to the accompaniment of clanging bells and hand-operated brakes is one of my favorite ways to traverse the city.

Fog in San Francisco is as common as a sunrise.

4. Fisherman’s Wharf

With restaurants, museums, an aquarium, and more, the Wharf is also a good place to catch boat tours. Pier 39, also located at the Wharf, is an animated shopping center complete with rafts of barking sea lions.

My favorite Wharf spot is at the west end at Maritime National Historic Park where you can tour the old sea-faring vessels, watch the birds and swimmers. The square-rigger Balclutha, launched in 1886, is permanently moored here for self-guided tours.

5. Ghirardelli Square

Also down at the Wharf’s west end is Ghirardelli Square. Once the factory where Ghirardelli chocolate was made, this building is now a restaurant and retail complex with views overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

6. Transamerica Pyramid Building

A popular symbol of the San Francisco skyline, the Transamerica Pyramid was completed in 1972. Here, visitors can enjoy a park with redwood trees in the middle of the Financial District. There is also a virtual observation deck experience that allows lobby visitors to operate four cameras positioned atop the building’s spire.

7. Coit Tower

San Francisco 1930s history comes alive inside this building decorated with stunning fresco murals. The tower was built in 1932-1933 and dedicated to volunteer San Francisco firefighters who lost their lives fighting fires. Visitors to the open-air top are rewarded with city and bay views.

This is one of the many murals inside Coit Tower.

8. Palace of Fine Arts

A pleasant stroll around this structure and lagoon brings the visitor back to the days of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition when it was erected as a temporary building. The only Exposition structure not to be torn down, it has been rebuilt and renovated since then, and has had a lifetime of different purposes.

9. Chinatown

The oldest Chinatown in North America, this neighborhood is a densely populated Asian enclave covering 24 blocks of shops, restaurants, homes, hospitals, and churches. A walk through on any day is an interesting combination of old and new culture.

10. Painted Ladies

Seven Victorian houses in a row on Steiner Street. Alamo Park, seen here in the foreground, is often busy with tourists taking selfies in front of the houses.

There were 48,000 Victorian and Edwardian houses built in San Francisco in the years 1849-1915; many can still be seen. The advent of painting them in bright colors started in 1963 and still exists today.

11. The Ferry Building

Completed in 1898, the Ferry Building was originally built as a transportation hub for ferry boats as well as transcontinental railway lines. Since then there have been many changes and renovations, but it still remains a hotspot for ferry boats, commuters, and tourists.

12. Ocean Beach

On the far western side of San Francisco is Ocean Beach. It has been a local recreational site for over a century with Playland, the Sutro Baths, Fleishhacker Pool and several renovations of the Cliff House. Today it attracts residents, visitors, joggers, dog walkers and families.

Whether you visited decades ago or are planning a future visit, these 12 iconic San Francisco sites are just a few of the many picturesque highlights of the City by the Bay.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

The Beauty of Moths

With the first day of summer approaching in the northern hemisphere, now is a good time to take a look at moths. We still have a few warm months to marvel at the beauty of these ghostly insects.

Moths make up the vast majority of the Lepidoptera family, with 160,000 worldwide species. In contrast, there are about 15,000 species of butterflies.

Just like butterflies, moths go through metamorphosis, and feed on plant nectar. They’re marvelous pollinators.

Unlike butterflies, moths are primarily nocturnal.

More moth info: Moth Wikipedia and Lepidoptera Wikipedia

I first started appreciating moths while traveling in the tropics. Frequently prowling at night, looking for owls and other creatures, we have found some extraordinary moths. In Africa some moths are as big as your hand.

Here is a moth who landed on our bungalow steps in Belize. This elegant individual cooperatively transferred onto a white envelope for better photographing.

But you don’t need to travel to exotic places to see moths.

All you need are warm temperatures and night scenes.

Light attracts moths. So there are many ways to observe them, from the simplest way of leaving your porch light on, to more scientific methods with UV lights and trapping techniques.

If you’re really into it, there are recipes for making a sugar mixture. You cool the syrup and paint it onto a tree with a paint brush.

There are also safe ways to build a trap, to gently funnel the moths into a vessel. Then you release the moths when you’re done observing.

There are many variations of DIY mothing methods, I have included several website links below.

But personally, I find the more complicated something like this gets, the less frequently I will do it. So we stick to simple mothing methods and keep it a spontaneous adventure that can be quickly assembled.

Here are two different mothing set-ups in our backyard.

The two main tools we use are: a UV light and a white surface.

We use an extension cord near an electrical outlet, grab the UV light and prop it on top of a box. It only takes a few minutes.

Our set-up costs about $20. I ordered a party “black” light from Amazon.

Turning on the light beforehand, at dusk, helps to increase the insect collection. Then we come out with flashlights in the dark and the show begins.

I use my close-focus binoculars, can see great details, while Athena photographs.

I was amazed at the beautiful flying insects that came into our light. We’d been living here nearly two decades before discovering our night insects.

Different moths cycle through in different seasons, just like birds.

This is a plume moth we first saw in the fall, but have not yet seen this summer.

I didn’t know what the “plumes” actually looked like, until I found this 17th Century drawing.

Plume moth drawing by Robert Hooke, 1635-1703, from Nat’l. Library of Wales. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Most of our moths are small, the size of a coin, and dark colored. But there are always variations, like the Darwin’s Green Moth featured earlier.

And it’s not just moths who come to the light.

Other insects join the party too.

Afterwards, it’s important to turn out the light and put away the sheet, otherwise birds will eat the insects in the morning.

A unique way for people of all ages to enjoy the outdoors on a summer night. Have fun celebrating the summer.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Mothing Links:

Citizen Science Organization on Mothing

Moth Lights from calnature.org

Hummingbird Moths and Mothing from baynature.org

UK website on Butterflies and Moths

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.