Celebrating Ibis

Humans have been celebrating ibis, a large wading bird, for thousands of years. Here is a brief overview and extensive photo gallery of ibis around the world; beginning with ancient times and ending with my favorite.

There are 29 species of ibis in the world today, on all continents except Antarctica.

Ancient Egyptians associated the ibis with Thoth, the God of wisdom and writing. Many ancient Egyptian art pieces present Thoth with the body of a man and the head of an ibis.

The prevalence of the ibis during ancient Egyptian times and the appeal of animal-inspired deities in general, can also be seen in the thousands of surviving ibis mummies in tombs throughout Egypt.

This wood ibis statue below dates to roughly 2,500 years ago.

All classified in the Threskiornithidae family, ibis have the long, downcurved bill as their most prominent feature.

Ibis Wikipedia

Ibis usually live in wetlands (though there are exceptions) using their long bills to probe into mud for food. They eat crayfish, crabs, small fish, insects and other invertebrates and crustaceans common in mudflats and marshes.

The three most common ibis species in North America are the white, white-faced and glossy.

In Northern California we have the white-faced ibis. Plegadis chihi. Populations declined with DDT and threatened marsh habitat from the 1940s to 1980s but have been resurrected via conservation efforts.

I have been birding the Sacramento Valley since the 1990s and have had the pleasure of watching the ibis populations gradually recover here.

This is a good photo (below, center) to demonstrate the size of the white-faced ibis compared to ducks.

Ibis tend to be gregarious birds and are usually seen in flocks.

This is what a flock looks like without optics.

A sight I always find pleasing is watching ibis in flight–they have a characteristic silhouette with their long bill leading the way.

This flock (below) was animated and at times even comical, as they probed the water for crayfish. The crayfish were putting up a fight and had the birds hopping and flopping.

The eastern half of the country is home to the glossy ibis, almost identical to the white-faced. The white-faced species is believed to have evolved from the glossy.

The white-faced ibis only has a white face during breeding.

You can see from the photo below that the back of this white-faced ibis is a handsome array of purple, green and bronze plumage. The glossy ibis has a similar look during non-breeding plumage.

In Florida and many of the Gulf and southeastern coastal habitats of the U.S., the American white ibis is a common wader. Eudocimus albus. Its long, pink bill and all-white body makes it easy to identify.

This photo, below, was taken on Sanibel Island in Florida, where this week they are experiencing terrifying devastation by the wrath of Hurrican Ian. We hope for the best as the folks in SW Florida and the southeastern coastal states endure this extreme storm.

Ibis juveniles are sometimes tricky to identify. The white ibis, for example, has a juvenile stage in which the bird is not white. It is brown.

This is a juvenile white ibis (below, right) we saw on Jekyll Island in Georgia. It is perched in a tree with a wood stork.

In Australia the Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis molucca) is widespread across most of the continent.

Ibis no longer exist in Egypt like they did thousands of years ago, but there are 11 extant species in Africa.

I have fond memories of Africa’s Hadada Ibis. Bostrychia hagedash. A primarily brown bird, they roosted overnight in the trees of our campsite in large flocks. Every morning they flew off, all in one marvelous squawking cacophony. It was always too dark to photograph them, but below is a good recording of just two Hadada.

Their onomatopoetic name is derived from the loud and distinctive “haa-haa-haa-de-dah” call they make.

Link to recording of two Hadada Ibis calling, South Africa.

I have left my favorite ibis for last–the scarlet ibis. Eudocimus ruber. This marvelously garish bird is native to South America and parts of the Caribbean. We saw it in Trinidad where it is their national bird. A heavy diet of red crustaceans produces the scarlet coloration.

We made a special trip to the Caroni Swamp in Trinidad to see it. We took a boat ride in waning light through swampy channels rife with boa constrictors coiled in mangrove trees above us.

The adventure was much like going out to see the fireworks on July Fourth, exciting and intriguing at the end of the day. But instead of being in the car with friends and family, we were in a boat with a surly captain.

We anchored and waited as the sun fell lower, watching for the scarlet ibis who would be heading to their nighttime roosts.

A few small flocks at a time, they began arriving.

The photo above shows all adults, bright red with black wingtips, except for the brown individual on the far left, that’s a juvenile.

Although we could not get close to the birds due to species protection rules, we did witness the glorious sight of numerous flocks of scarlet ibis descending on island mangrove trees.

Ibis around the world, big birds wading in the mud, yet to humans for thousands of years, we find them exquisite.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

California Oaks and Acorns

With over 600 species of oak trees on our planet, this venerable tree surrounds many of us. This time of year we watch the seasonal changes, but every season is a joy with oak trees.

Oak trees live only in the Northern Hemisphere. They belong to the genus Quercus, meaning “fine tree” in Latin.

More info: Oak Wikipedia

Here in Northern California, the oaks have endured the summer drought with stoic strength. They stretch their mighty roots deep into the earth for moisture when the rest of the landscape is parched.

We have approximately 20 species in California, the Bay Area has eight or nine. See penultimate photo. Oak woodlands cover approximately 8.8 million acres of California (Bay Nature, Spr. 2022).

Everywhere I go in this great state, I am always studying the oak trees, trying to determine which species I am fortunate to have the pleasure of meeting.

I look closely at the bark and leaves, the shape of the tree, take note of the location.

Acorns are also helpful identifying tools, if there are any on the tree. Phone apps for identifying species help, too.

But identifying an oak species can be tricky, I have found, because they hybridize. So I try not to get too involved with identification studies…I am not presenting a dissertation, it’s simply a walk among friends.

More important than identification is taking note of the grand queen I am in the presence of, and what she has to offer.

An early springtime stroll through oak woodlands reveals lichen-covered and leafless oaks, and winter rains still saturating the hillsides.

Later in spring the lupine wildflowers emerge and the trees are budding.

Winter brings a bouquet of moss and lichen to every tree; many are draped with lace lichen, the State Lichen.

This brown creeper, below, was busy hunting insects nestled in the lichen and moss.

Oaks are magnets for all sorts of wildlife.

This week I had the pleasure of a great horned owl serenade in the oaks out back…a calm duet in the middle of the night.

Autumn is a great time for watching creatures pluck the acorns and whisk them off to their special hiding places in preparation for inclement days.

Acorn woodpeckers, named for their expert reign over oak trees, can often be seen snatching the acorns, squawking loudly, calling waka-waka-waka. They robustly tug and remove the nut and fly off in a flurry of black and white to deposit it.

A granary is a designated place acorn woodpeckers have chosen for storing their precious acorn supply. Usually a granary is a dead tree (not necessarily an oak), but the birds also use utility poles, fence posts, wooden buildings. As colonial birds, they rely on each other to protect their wares.

Over the years they have created these holes for storing acorns.

You can see (below) the holes that are stuffed with tan-colored acorns.

Over time a granary acorn will dry out and get smaller, so the acorn woodpeckers relocate it to a different hole where it fits more snugly and safely.

Every species of woodpecker visits the oak trees, not just acorn woodpeckers.

And both our jay species do, too. Western scrub-jay and Steller’s jay. When the acorns are ready, the jays doggedly gather acorns all day long.

Equally as fun is witnessing the jays months later retrieving the buried acorns from the ground or shrubbery.

Nuthatches get their name from jamming large nuts and acorns into tree bark, then whacking them with their sharp bill to “hatch” out the seed of the nut.

Squirrels of course take to the nuts. We expect this of tree squirrels, but even so-called ground squirrels scramble about in the leaves at acorn time. Apparently the ground squirrels throw caution to the wind, scurrying about in the oak tree instead of on the ground. More than once I have witnessed the ground squirrel falter and fall out of the tree, plop on the ground. They don’t seem to be hurt and in fact go right back up the trunk.

Here you can see a trio of acorns (lower right) that the ground squirrel is precariously heading toward.

Long ago acorns were prized by human indigenous populations too. There is, however, a lot of work to preparing an acorn for human consumption, due to the nut’s tannins.

More info: Acorn Wikipedia

After the acorn celebration is over, in a few months the deciduous oaks will be leafless, giving us a clean view of the gnarly limbs and multiple trunks.

They close down and rest for a season of cold days and nights.

When spring arrives, the tree produces catkins, its flowers. In the black oak (Quercus kelloggii), photo below, you can see hanging filaments dotted with tiny red balls–those are the catkins.

The leaves start out red.

As the season progresses, the leaves get bigger and turn from red to lime green. Then as the California sunshine intensifies, the lime green leaves turn darker green and get tougher, leathery.

Our old black oak tree was very entertaining every spring when birds arrived to pluck juicy caterpillars rolled up in the new leaves. It was great for the tree too, removing pests.

With each new season the oaks change and we are reminded by this lovely being how wise and wonderful life on earth can be.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Great reference guide for oaks: The Sibley Guide to Trees (2009) by David A. Sibley

A Day at Bodega Bay

I went to Bodega Bay last week, a west coast fishing village in Northern California. The day began with fog and low cloud cover, as always; and by early afternoon the fog had lifted, the sun was shining.

A shallow inlet off the Pacific Ocean, the bay is about five miles (8 km) across.

There’s a small road that curves around to the back of the bay. On the way you pass the town’s lodge and restaurant. Below is the restaurant, and below that is the dock in back.

Driving along, you pass the small local grocer (Diekmann’s) where you can buy firewood and bait. Turn off the main road and follow it around past the marina and chowder shop, and you’ll find plenty of picturesque places to stop and view the bay.

The marine influence is most pronounced in the bay’s water levels. At low tide there’s a lot of mud, naturally. I’ve visited this village close to 50 times, and it always looks different because of the tides.

In December it is crab season, and you will see individual crabbers venture out into the mud at low tide in their wellies digging for crab.

But at this time of year, the crab season hasn’t yet started.

You can, however, spot an occasional crab along the mudflats, darting in and out of the mud holes.

Courtesy Wikipedia

We go to Bodega Bay for the birds…primarily shorebirds. It is located on the Pacific Flyway. Most migrating birds do not arrive until autumn, where they will stay for the winter. But some birds, like the marbled godwits in the two photos below, are early arrivals.

Ruddy turnstones (below) were a pleasant surprise to find on the dock. They, too, are a little early. Early birds.

Several harbor seals joined an animated flock of brown pelicans in a feeding frenzy, and occasionally a silvery fish popped out of the water.

Alfred Hitchcock came here for the birds, too, in 1962. “The Birds” was filmed here.

I wrote a post about it: The Birds and Bodega Bay.

As you continue along the road, you come to Campbell Cove beach and a small adjacent pond.

Fog horns and squawking gulls dominate the soundscape here, and the air is redolent with briny sea. Small boats cruise to and from the sea.

The pond is small…but with a big history.

Today it is a quiet little pond where songbirds perch in the reeds. We watched northern rough-winged swallows dipping in the water, and a pied-billed grebe.

But in the early 1960s this spot was a maelstrom of bustling construction proudly touted by Pacific Gas and Electric to be the first commercially viable nuclear power plant in the U.S.

Then a remarkable group of local residents-turned-activists rallied, had the construction permanently shut down.

Over the victorious years since then, the construction hole (aka Hole in the Head) has filled in with rainwater and natural springs, and native shrubs have grown up.

Read more here: Sonoma Magazine Bodega Head article

Upon leaving this corner of the bay, the road switchbacks up and leads to several hiking trails and a Pacific Ocean overlook.

It’s windy and wild with precipitous cliffs.

At this time of year, many species of shorebirds are gathered on the ocean cliff rocks in various breeding stages.

This juvenile brown pelican will learn how to use its wings from a great height.

This western gull has an egg on her nest.

The road ends here at the edge of the earth.

Just like the birds, coming and going, we head back home, completely fulfilled by an adventurous day at Bodega Bay.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Quail Chicks

It’s that time of year when I have the pleasure of sharing the adorable new quail chicks born recently in our backyard. Summer in northern California in a lucky year when the little puffballs make their debut.

This past spring, pairs of quails were seen frequently throughout the day in our yard. Then around June we didn’t see them anymore. This might have been alarming if we had not known it was nesting time, when they disappear for about a month to raise a family.

Then, as expected, they appeared with their new family.

It is an absolute thrill when one day the little ones scurry into our midst.

They are difficult to capture on camera as they are extremely skittish.

Parents typically produce 12 to 16 eggs in a clutch, and often about half of those are quickly preyed on. Precocial out of necessity, chicks usually leave the nest within a day after hatching.

We have watched five chicks growing up in the past two weeks, and we keep our fingers crossed that they will all survive.

Below is the first time we saw them, taken on July 23. They’re probably about one week old here. They appeared for less than one minute.

The cotoneaster shrub you see them next to is where we think their nest was.

Twelve days later their black head stripes had matured into more recognizable quail markings. In this photo (below) you can see a small black patch on each of their crowns. In a few days this will develop into their plume, also known as a topknot.

There are many species who prey on quail eggs and chicks, so the nest is well hidden under a shrub.

Fox, coyote, raccoons and outdoor cats are a few of the predators. The American Bird Conservancy estimates outdoor cats kill “an estimated 2.4 billion birds a year.”

More info: American Bird Conservancy

Somewhere under this shrub is their nest.

We’re in a drought and have severe water restrictions, so there is no green grass this time of year. But there are plenty of seeds on the ground, which is what the chicks eat.

Mature quail are often seen pecking and scratching at the ground, but the chicks just peck until they learn how to scratch.

More info: California Quail allaboutbirds.org

Their camouflage is an important factor in survival. You can hardly make it out that there are five chicks in the photo below: three chicks on the left, two in the center, and both parents on the right.

Still staying close to the cotoneaster.

When the chicks are this young, one or both parents are invariably accompanying the young. One usually stands sentinel and watches for predators, while the other parent eats and tends to the young.

Here the mother is standing sentinel and all five chicks are underneath the bench.

This photo, below, shows a chick with dad. You can see the chick’s topknot has grown a little.

This photo, below, is two days after the above photo. The topknot is a bit bigger, breast feathers and markings are becoming more prominent. This chick is learning what its wings are about.

At first the chicks only pecked on flat ground, then eventually they started climbing onto the rocks. And then one day they got to the top of the rocks and their mother (below, right) was encouraging them to use their wings to fly into the shrub. They were reluctant but successful.

We have a bird bath that is one of the few sources of water around, and all the bird species rely on it for drinking and bathing. Every day I wondered why the parents weren’t showing the chicks the water source. Precious resource on these hot, dry days.

What I learned was they weren’t ready yet. But this week we’re getting closer to that.

A few days ago the adult male stood sentinel on the bird bath, encouraging his offspring to try this handy resource. The parents murmur in low, almost imperceptible tones to their young.

An acorn woodpecker, however, was thirsty too, and they seem to rule higher in the backyard hierarchy. The male quail quickly acquiesced.

Yesterday morning I heard the quail fly in–that distinctive whir of their wings–and briefly saw their shadows in my periphery. When I went to the window, my heart skipped a beat when I counted only three chicks.

But happy day, the other two joined up.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

San Francisco’s Market Street

Much of the past and present of San Francisco lies on Market Street. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of this lively thoroughfare of the city by the bay.

San Francisco’s biggest and widest street is 120 feet wide (36 m) and three miles (5 km) long. It ends at the bay.

You can see in this overview photo below the wide street vertically cutting a long and distinct swath through the center of the city landscape. That’s Market Street.

This vintage San Francisco map below shows how there are two grids facing different directions. It is Market Street that is the boundary of the two grids, cutting diagonally across the city.

SF map courtesy Wikipedia

Graded through sand dunes in the 1850s, Market Street quickly became a major thoroughfare in the Gold Rush days. Public transportation of all kinds has traversed this street over the decades.

Below is a link to an eight-minute video restored by the U.S. Library of Congress; it was filmed just days before the 1906 earthquake. It takes the viewer on a cable car ride down Market Street at about 10 mph, demonstrating a typical day in 1906.

Video Link: A Trip Down Market Street

Wikipedia Market Street

Except for the Golden Gate Bridge photo, all photos in this essay reflect scenes on Market Street.

It has also hosted a plethora of events from presidential parades to pride parades; earthquake recovery sites to Super Bowl celebrations.

Below is an archival photo from 1903 of a parade on Market Street for the president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt.

At Market and Fifth Street, May 1903. Courtesy theodorerooseveltcenter.org

Over a century later: the same spot on Market Street, across the street at the cable car turnaround.

These two old photos of the Ferry Building, at the base of Market Street, are right after the 1906 earthquake and then six months later under renovation.

This is Market Street and the Ferry Building six months after the 1906 earthquake, in recovery mode.

A prominent old hotel on Market Street is the Palace Hotel. It was originally built in 1875, burned down (1906 earthquake), and was rebuilt and reopened in 1909. Today it is still an elegant hotel and restaurant, hosting a variety of notable guests. These two photos are the same room, 1904 and 2013.

courtesy https://thepalacehotel.org – Garden Court, 1904

Another landmark on Market Street is Lotta’s Fountain. It is a cast iron sculpture that became a meeting place for survivors after the 1906 earthquake.

Since that day, April 18, 1906, the city has hosted an annual celebration at the fountain. It takes place at dawn when the earthquake hit. Organizers dress in vintage clothing. The presiding mayor always gives a speech about earthquake safety and the strength of the community then and now.

There is always an interesting cast of characters and costumes at this festive dawn event.

On a normal day, there are parts of Market Street not advisable for pedestrians. From about Fifth Street west to Van Ness Avenue is a decaying array of homeless people, drug addicts and unsavory scenes.

Every new mayor promises to clean it up, but this section of Market remains stubbornly ugly and unsafe.

Here are some happy moments on Market Street at the Pride Parades over a span of many years.

One of my memorable moments on Market Street took place in 1983 soon after I had moved to San Francisco. My first job was on Market in an office building at the intersection of Kearney and Third. Early on I started noticing two women who looked exactly alike.

Not only did they look exactly alike, they walked alike and moved in synchrony.

They walked down Market Street at the same time every day, like clockwork. I learned they were prominent characters of San Francisco. The Brown Twins. They worked at different offices, but every day at the same time they met up and paraded down the street together wearing the exact same clothes, accessories, hair and make-up.

One day I brought in my camera. I had a plan. My co-worker and I walked down Market at the time they were expected. And we found them. We asked if we could pose for a photo with them. They were pleasant and obliging and friendly.

In the hustle of the downtown lunch hour, we found someone to snap a photo of the four of us. I am on the far right.

It’s an interesting and historic street, our Market Street. It’s so quirky that even the direction it takes is diagonal. But those of us who have spent any time in San Francisco, like this artery of our favorite city.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Summer Day, Abbotts Lagoon

Our day trip to Point Reyes this week was another pure delight, a summer day on the coast. Fifty miles inland a hot and dry July day was forming, but our visit to the coast was one of fog and blessedly cool temperatures.

The fog was so thick it was actually billowing in clouds that blew across the road. The sky had a low cloud cover and sweeping skyscapes all day.

Summer at Point Reyes National Seashore, Northern California. Migrating winter ducks and geese have not yet arrived, and it’s too early to look for migrating whales. But there’s plenty of color and beauty on this windswept coastal paradise.

It was still too early and too cold for shorts and sandals, so most visitors hadn’t yet arrived…just a few dedicated hikers quietly making their way down the trail to the sea.

The local denizens of Abbotts Lagoon, however, were busy with their day.

Upon arrival we noticed the lupine shrubs no longer have the yellow blossoms we saw last month. This is a snap of June.

And this (below) is a snap from this week, July. As you can see, this month the native shrubs have just the pods, the flowers are spent.

Coastal chaparral was colorful on this day, enhanced by the overcast sky, and was fragrantly herbaceous with the moisture.

Everything seemed to be hushed by the fog, including these Canada Geese.

The low-lying marsh area down by the boardwalk didn’t have water this time of year, but it had a thicket of marsh plants–docket (brown) and coastal hedge-nettle (pink).

Predictably there are almost always one or two black-tailed deer down at the marsh, grazing.

And sure enough, we spotted this fawn without its mother, who soon went bounding off.

Insects in the summer are different from the other seasons, and one of the stalwarts of summer is this beetle. We see them on the trail where their shiny black backs stand out against the sand. They’re about the length of a paper clip.

As we neared the sea, the trail turned to sand. It was too cold for the dragonflies who frequent this part of the trail, but a brush rabbit soon dove under cover.

Then we arrived at the shore and crossed the short walking bridge, always worth a stop to see if any creatures are underneath.

In the past we have seen river otters here, nesting swallows, a pelican carcass, and lots of different wading birds. That day it was a great blue heron hunting…and with success.

Since the spring, the beach plants have been flowering and they are different flowers every month. This month it is the gumplants that are in full bloom.

Robustly growing in large patches across the sandy beach, gumplants are named for the gummy white resin that grows in the center of each yellow flower. 

It was about a 45-minute walk back to the car, and then we were off to other parts of Point Reyes. I’ll tell you about that another time.

We were happy to spot this coyote as we drove slowly along the country road.

We also spotted a few female elk, aka cows, grazing. Point Reyes is the only National Park unit where tule elk can be found. A grassland elk found in just a few places in California, they live on a preserve in Point Reyes.

That day the cows were too far away to get a good photo, but here is a photo from another summer visit.

We see the elk every single visit on this road, Pierce Point Road. We look forward to seeing the elk next month, when the rutting (breeding) season typically begins.

There is much excitement when the bulls join up with the females. The males put on quite a show of territorial sparring with bugling and antler bashing. It lasts for a few months, so I’ll be sure to share the excitement with you.

Always a pleasure, my friends, to share Point Reyes with you.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Wooly Weeders

Every spring and summer in northern California we welcome the arrival of the grazing sheep. Here’s a look at how a few hundred sheep are used for fire prevention.

Vineyards hire them to eat the weeds between the grape rows and to thin the grape leaves. Landowners use them to organically mow the tall grass, a fire hazard, and other vegetation.

Typically our rainy season ends in May or June and then we don’t have rain again until about November. During this time the grass turns brown.

The sheep mow the grass, chew off invasive weeds, provide manure fertilizer, and aerate the soil with their hooves. Unlike weed whackers or mowers, there is no fuel used and the only noise is lots of “baaas” and “maaas.”

These photos were taken from the edge of town last month, the ovines were here for three weeks.

I estimated the flock at 200-300, and it seemed they were all lambs and ewes.

The sheep were accompanied by one shepherd, a Peruvian man, and an Australian Shepherd dog named Lollie.

Since fire dangers have increased in California, grazing services have become more popular. Sheep, goats, even llamas and alpacas are seen. Here we had just sheep, called the Wooly Weeders.

There are more than 200 distinct breeds of sheep on this planet and breeding is ever-evolving. This flock is some derivation of the East Friesian Milk Sheep, the world’s highest producer of milk.

The Wooly Weeders owner tells the story that he originally had the sheep herd for their milk, he sold it for artisan cheeses. Then one day while they were near the Mondavi Vineyards, the sheep escaped their pen and started eating the Mondavi grass. And that began the business of hiring the sheep for grazing.

Wooly Weeders website

There are lightweight temporary wire fences that contain the sheep, electrified by two car batteries to keep the sheep in and predators out. Every 1-3 days the shepherd moved the fencing. Then he and the dog moved the flock to a new plot until all the grass was eaten.

The day they were all done, the shepherd collected and packed all the equipment (below).

You can see they’ve eaten all the tall grass and the bottoms of the shrubbery but not the unreachable green tops. This is an oak woodland, and fortunately they do not eat the oak trees.

Herding time was dramatic.

First the dog circled and re-circled the flock several times, following short one-word commands from the shepherd. In this photo the black dog is in the front doing her job.

As she circled the flock, the ruminants were forced to stand up and crowd together, and after about five minutes of this they became concentrated into a small space. Here the dog is in back on the left.

Once they were crowded into a herd, they ran in one direction, then back over where they just were. Back and forth, the herd zig-zagging over the same spot, led and dominated by the dog. Although it looked non-sensical and completely chaotic, there was a reason.

Stampeding over the same spot where they’ve been grazing for a day or two had a purpose: they were grinding their own manure into the ground.

Everything is dry here, so the dirt would get kicked up and a dusty tornado hovered over the flock.

Each section usually took 24-48 hours for the sheep to eat the grass. They ate voraciously.

Regardless of how steep the hill was or how rocky, the sheep mowed it all.

Sheep, like other ruminants, have jaws designed for chewing. You can see from the sheep skull below that they have front teeth on the lower jaw only. These teeth press against the gum of the upper jaw to tear off vegetation. Then the rear teeth grind the vegetation before it is swallowed.

Courtesy Wikipedia.

The sheep were never quiet. They have many vocalizations and many tones. They bleat (“baaa”), grunt, and snort. I’ve read there is rumbling when males are present during breeding.

The bleats are contact communication, and very distinctive. One sounded exactly like Chewbacca from Star Wars. Tones were low and deep as well as high.

We watched this sheeply spectacle so long that we got to be pretty good at recognizing individual calls.

None of it was baaaaaad.

There were dozens of nursing lambs in the flock, and their “feed me” bleating sounds were more high-pitched and insistent. They were often calling out to their maaaaaaaaa.

After three weeks, the sheep had finished mowing the whole area. They were herded into a long livestock truck, loaded up and off they went.

Hopefully we will all be baaaaaaaack next summer.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

American Vistas

As Americans celebrate Independence Day this weekend, it’s a good time to ponder and admire the diverse habitats and picturesque vistas all contained in this one large country.

The western half of the country is dominated by the Rocky Mountains–the largest mountain system in North America–and the Pacific Ocean.

The west has far more tectonic plates at work underground than in the east, creating more rugged mountains and geologic features. West coast beaches in general tend to have more craggy rocks and chilly water currents.

Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, America’s first national park, has over half of the world’s geysers and hydrothermal features.

The west is home to expansive deserts, too. Arid regions with minimal precipitation and unique landscapes.

Much of the country’s central section, the Midwest, is flat. Once a land of vast prairies, it now hosts over 127 million acres of agriculture and has some of the richest soil in the world.

Some U.S. prairies still exist, like this one in Texas.

Bisecting the near-center of the country is the Mississippi River, the second largest river in the nation (second to the Missouri). It drains all or parts of 31 states before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Gulf of Mexico, another of our nation’s coasts, is one of humid subtropical climate bordering five states.

America’s Great Lakes, in the center of the country and eastward, form the largest group of freshwater lakes on earth. They were formed via glacial activity.

All of the Great Lakes are huge, this is just a small section of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The eastern half of the country is dominated by the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean’s coast and coastal plain. Mountains on this side of the country are older and not as high as in the west. Warmer waters and long stretches of white sand beaches enrich the eastern seaboard.

In addition to the 48 contiguous states, America also has five major island territories; a tropical island state, Hawaii; and Alaska, our largest state, in northern, arctic regions.

Alaska is the state with the most islands, 171, and the country’s tallest mountain, Denali, with a peak reaching 20,310 feet (6,190 m.).

Lots of rivers in this country too — over 250,000.

Link: Map and List of U.S. Rivers

The Columbia River, pictured below, has the largest discharge into the Pacific Ocean in North or South America.

Wetlands in the U.S. are critical habitats for improved water quality, erosion control and flood protection to name a few. They are found in every state, but there are more in the east where glaciation created an abundance of aquatic habitat. The largest wetland system in the U.S. is in Florida, the Everglades.

This is the Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin, below. I was born in this region and visiting America’s marshes and swamps is always like going home to me.

Most of our eastern nation’s southern states fall into the humid subtropical climate zones, where warmer temperatures, bayous and swamps can be found.

Cities occupy much of our country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2020 the United States has over 300 cities/towns with populations over 100,000.

It is no wonder that Americans like to flock to our 423 nationally protected parks, monuments and preserves for recreation. Our nation maintains more than 85 million acres of parks in all 50 states. Of those, there are 63 classified National Parks.

While many of America’s cities in the west are lovely…

…the cities in the east boast more national history.

The city where our Declaration of Independence was signed is Philadelphia. It served as the nation’s capital for one decade in the 1790s.

Today, Washington, D.C. is the capital city and federal district of the United States.

This week, the 2020 Census reflects a current U.S. population of 334,861,117.

Our country and its peoples have come a long way since the early days. So many different people and cultures have built this country, called it home.

We all have a lot to celebrate.

Happy Fourth!

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Bobcat

On a visit to Pt. Reyes this week, we came upon this beautiful bobcat. One of my favorite wilderness haunts in northern California, Pt. Reyes did not disappoint.

When we came upon this bobcat, it was in a field where we had seen a bobcat about two years earlier. Since the pandemic curtailed travel two years ago, we have been visiting Pt. Reyes nearly every month and we always drive slowly at this spot, every single visit, searching, scanning, always looking to get lucky with another siting. And this time…bingo.

Lynx rufus is very territorial, so it’s probably the same individual we saw earlier.

This is a female. Her body was about three feet (a meter) long; sleek and muscular.

Unlike all the other times I have observed a wild bobcat, she did not disappear right away.

She continued to prowl in the grassy field. Then she was crouched and clearly stalking something.

Athena quietly jumped out of the car and huddled behind the vehicle, using it for a partial blind as she snapped these photos.

Another minute went by and then the bobcat pounced. She came up with a large pocket gopher firmly clenched in her jaws.

Instead of heading in the opposite direction to indulge in her prize, the bobcat surprisingly walked right past us.

Females solely care for the young who are typically born in April or May, so we determined she caught this pocket gopher for her kittens.

She was on a mission to feed some hungry mouths. Probably three or four waiting for her in their den, where they will depend on her for about a year.

This photo shows her pointy lynx ears.

Here you can see her short, bobbed tail for which the cat is named. And her big feline paws are prominent, as well as her exquisite markings.

We watched in silent reverence for five precious minutes, and then she, and her fresh gopher, descended down the hill and out of sight.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Western Fence Lizard and More

In my humble enjoyment of wild creatures across the planet, I am reminded on this hot summer day of one of my favorite creatures on earth: lizards.

They can thermoregulate their body temperature and gather energy from the sun. Let go of their tail if it is clenched in the jaws of a predator and grow another.

Many have not two, but three eyes. Located on the back of the head, the third eye is used for regulating hormone production and detecting predators.

Our local lizard, the western fence lizard, possesses all these features and more. They are commonly found in California and many of the western states; and classified as Sceloporus occidentalis in the order Squamata and suborder Iguania.

With the current high temperatures lately, I have had the pleasure of watching them skitter around me every day.

They are small lizards, could fit into your hand. But good luck trying to get them into your hand because they’re lightning fast.

Males have a blue underside; you can see it here.

This one (below) has a small circle of pale blue on his throat.

This photo below highlights his many scales.

The scales overlap and are made of keratin. They provide protection from the environment as well as preventing water loss.

Lizards eat the mosquitoes that would otherwise bite me. This is a gift, pure and simple. They hop up and snatch the insect so fast that you can’t even see their tongue at work.

I love to sit outside at the end of a summer day watching the lizards. As opposed to the morning when they are sluggish and still storing the sun’s energy, late in the day they are super fast, like on steroids, after soaking up the sun all day long.

In addition to all this, Sceloporus occidentalis have a feature so extra special that it has become the subject of many scientific studies. They have the ability to neutralize the deer tick bacterium that transmits to humans, thereby curtailing the transmission of Lyme’s Disease.

Deer ticks are the primary carriers of Lyme disease. A protein in the blood of western fence lizards kills the bacterium in these ticks when they attach themselves to a lizard and ingest the lizard’s blood.

Numerous studies have determined that Lyme disease effects less people in California than in the eastern U.S., due to our most common lizard’s neutralizing abilities. That’s a gift too.

More western fence lizard info:

Western Fence Lizard Wikipedia and Northwestern Fence Lizard CaliforniaHerpes.com

This is a photo of another of our common lizards, the alligator lizard.

These photos, below, are some of my favorite lizards from other parts of the world, starting with the small ones and working up to very large lizards.

These last two, the marine and land iguanas, are gloriously huge.

If you are squeamish about Squamata, I hope this lizard love fest has warmed you to these magnificent creatures.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.