So Many Elephant Seals

It was a chilly but sunny day last week when we had the fortune of spending time with a colony of elephant seals.

There are only about a dozen spots in the world where northern elephant seals breed, and Point Reyes in Northern California is one of them.

They spend most of their lives at sea, only coming to land for breeding.

At Point Reyes, the bulls (males) arrive in December and the cows (females) arrive in January.

The pups had recently been born and there was a bonanza of excitement on the day we visited, with this colony numbering over 120 individuals spread out across the short beach.

There were mostly mothers and pups, and a couple dozen bulls made their presence known.

There were orange barricades up, keeping people at a distance to protect the seals; and this sign, below, with the seal count. We were on the southwest side of Drakes Beach at the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center.

Always with elephant seals, the first thing you are instantly aware of is their gargantuan size. The bulls are noticeably larger, but the cows are also formidably large.

Quick Facts from National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration:

Weight: 1,300 – 4,400 pounds (590-1,996 kg)

Length: 10-13 feet (3-4 m)

Adult male elephant seals have a large inflatable nose, or proboscis, that overhangs the lower lip resembling an elephant trunk, thus its name. The proboscis is his tool for amplifying sounds in female competitions.

Mirounga angustirostris nearly went extinct in the late 1800s from over-harvesting. Their blubber is oil-rich. They had been absent from Point Reyes for more than 150 years; then in the 1970s elephant seals returned to the Point Reyes beaches, and in 1981 a breeding pair was discovered.

They are protected now and the California population is continuing to grow at around 6% per year.

More info:

Northern Elephant Seal Wikipedia and Northern Elephant Seals National Park Service

As of last week, the mothers were still nursing and the pups, in that newborn way, were demanding, screaming.

You can see in the two photos below they are dark black and wrinkled, having been recently born.

This pup, below front, has learned how to sit up.

The pups would scream and whimper for a few minutes, and then figure out how to get over to their mother for sustenance.

The mothers were laid out, soaking up the sunshine. I liked watching this mother, below, who was apparently hot. Every once in a while she languidly dug her front flipper into the sand and swept some cooling sand onto her back. You can see the morsels of sand on her back and the depression she has made in the sand on the right.

You can also see her whiskers in this photo (above). Living at sea for most of their days and foraging at great depths, elephant seals use these whiskers (aka vibrissae) to fish in complete darkness, sensing the location of prey.

Often a little itch was scratched with the flipper claws.

The bulls were fun to watch too. Occasionally one would awake and prop himself up, lifting the front of his body, and proclaiming his superiority with a territorial roar or two. There were rumblings and roars that always turned my head.

But every single time I watched, it was all more bluster than anything. They are so heavy and awkward on land, they would plop across the sand for about three steps and then collapse, lay back down and go to sleep.

I’ve read that males have brutal fights in their hierarchical society, but we were witnessing a different stage of life when there were few males and the females were busy with pups.

There was an overflow lagoon where a few males swam around. You can see a male in the photo below, just right of the center.

This male, below, hauled out of the lagoon and found himself a comfortable spot in the parking lot.

Crashing waves, brisk winds, briny sea aromas, and squawking gulls are all a thrill when we go to the beach on a winter day. Watching active elephant seals–roaring, nursing or squealing–and it all makes for an absolutely super day.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

North American River Otters

It was a mild day in Northern California when we spotted the river otters, a pair.

With the barrage of storms we have been experiencing in California recently, spotting wildlife or even getting into wildlife refuges has proven challenging. Fortunately we had visited before the storms, in December.

We were at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge up on a wildlife viewing deck overlooking the refuge, spotting birds. Ducks, waders and geese were occupying the marsh, as usual; some were tucked in and sleeping, others were foraging.

This yellow-rumped warbler joined us, like they do every time we go on this deck.

Then all of a sudden, several dozen ducks all lifted simultaneously from the water–a wave and a lot of fluttering.

There was no sign of what had caused the clamor. There are no roads or humans in this area (photo below), it’s nothing but birds and marsh grass on this huge expanse.

Right away they settled back down.

But then a moment later it happened again. It was a different wave of birds lifting, also suddenly and dramatically. Just as I was putting my binoculars up to investigate, a man on the deck said to us, “Do you see the otters?”

Then we had the wildest surprise: two river otters were chasing the ducks!

It happened three or four more times, and then the otters waddled onto a strip of land, partially hidden behind tule reeds.

More info about this largest member of the weasel family: Wikipedia North American River Otter

Perfectly suited for water, river otters have short legs and a long, narrow body. Their swimming is graceful gliding.

They are not, however, aquatic mammals–they are semi-aquatic, spending much time on land. Four short little legs may work well in the water, and getting in and out of the water is a breeze, too. They effortlessly slide in and out of the water.

But when they’re walking on land, they are awkward, kind of hopping and waddling.

They were in and out of the tall weeds for a little while, each one preening.

Then they came out of the reeds, and we could see them better. They were about 500 feet (152 m) away.

We watched for as long as they were there and after about five minutes they disappeared, and everything settled down.

Lontra canadensis prefer a diet of fish and crayfish, but they are adaptive to seasonal availability and also consume crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians, small mammals and even reptiles. They do occasionally eat small birds including ducks.

Were they intending to eat a duck in all that hoopla? Is that why they were chasing them?

I don’t think so. I think they were just frolicking, having a bit of fun.

Three years ago in this same refuge but miles away, we watched a trio of river otters fishing. They were in a deep ditch filled with rainwater (photo below) and would go down under the dark water and come up with a flopping fish in their teeth, eat it, and then dive back down again. They did this for at least a half hour–focused and successful.

You can see the otter’s long facial whiskers in this photo. The whiskers are long, stiff and highly sensitive, aid in locating and capturing prey in the darkest of waters. There’s also a fish in its mouth.

This pair we saw last month, they were doing the river otter dance, having some fun, showing off their prowess.

River otters–so fun to watch–sliding and diving, playing and hopping. They make me wanna dance.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Winter Waterfowl Migration

Northern California is in quite a storm stir this week and last, as many of you have probably seen on the news. Here’s a look at the winter bird migration before the storms began.

In mid-December we visited two wildlife refuges in the Sacramento Valley and it was fantastic, as always.

Since then, blustery storms have battered this area with heavy winds, toppling trees, relentless flooding, mudslides and broken levees. Much of the state has been devastated.

But let’s go back to December and take a look at a pleasant, mild day in the Sacramento Valley.

In addition to several bald eagles at the refuge, many other raptors greeted us that December day–plenty of red-tailed hawks, some red-shouldered hawks, and a few northern harriers.

Northern California, the Pacific Flyway. The migrating birds fly down from the continent’s northern regions and spend the winter in the Sacramento Valley, typically from November through February. Then they fly back north for breeding during the warm months.

The Pacific Flyway is shown on the map below in green, along North America’s west coast.

Courtesy Wikipedia

You can see from the map that there are three other flyways across the country/continent as well. Bird migrations occur all across the world.

More info about Flyways from Wikipedia.

For 30 years Athena and I have visited the Sacramento Valley every winter to observe the migration. Amazingly, it is always different.

At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge this time there was less water in the ponds, less geese; but the water levels of course have since dramatically changed with the onslaught of recent storms.

At the time they were experiencing an extreme drought, consequently many of the rice fields that attract the birds had had the water redirected into municipal water reservoirs.

Hard to imagine now, with rainstorms raging every day, that a few weeks ago we were in a severe drought.

The birds in biggest numbers on the Pacific Flyway are always geese and ducks.

The predominant goose species is snow geese (see first photo), but there are also many thousands of white-fronted geese (photo below).

There are thousands of ducks. We were happy this time to see the northern shovelers and green-winged teals in bright light, showing off their vibrant features. Often there is thick fog, but not that day.

Northern shovelers, so named for their shovel-shaped bills, were in abundance.

Green-winged teals, one of America’s most beautiful ducks, boast a variety of colors with emerald highlights.

Wading birds were predictably present including great blue herons, great and snowy egrets, black-necked stilts and white-faced ibis.

Often the ibis appear just black, but with a day of sunshine we had the full effect of their magically iridescent feathers. Green, maroon, brown. Their colors actually change as you watch them walk, depending on how the sun is striking.

When it comes to sporting colors, the ring-necked pheasant is a showstopper. There was a brief three seconds before he vanished in tall grass.

There are always plenty of songbirds here, too. Yellow-rumped warblers, scrub jays, and sparrows were prevalent, and the two special songbirds of the day were the western meadowlark and American pipit.

This photograph below shows bits of mud on the meadowlark’s bill where he or she had been probing. They seek wide open spaces of native grassland and agricultural fields for foraging.

American pipits, below, are in the songbird family, but I have never heard them sing. They come here to our mild climates for the winter in their nonbreeding plumage. They don’t sing until they go back home to the Arctic tundra and alpine meadows where they breed and nest.

Although you wouldn’t guess it by the plain and drab brown markings, this bird is a jewel for birders like us. Unlike sparrows, we don’t see a lot of the pipits.

At the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge about 20 minutes away, we were happy to find these black-crowned night herons in their usual place. They are more active at dusk; during the day they are nestled in bare trees, and few are moving.

On the auto route, this colony of black-crowned night herons doesn’t look like much from the car. I often see cars drive by without noticing the herons at all. To the untrained eye I suppose it looks like bits of trash in the weeds.

But a good pair of binoculars or a powerful camera lens bring this stately heron into better view.

We also had some fun sightings of river otters at the refuge that day.

These days I am feeling a bit like a river otter myself here in stormy northern California–slipping in the mud and constantly wet. Although more storms are expected, I’m hoping my fine pelt continues to protect me and that next Friday I’ll have entertaining stories to bark about.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Spectacular Coast Scenes

Last week was another great adventure to Point Reyes, but this time we explored the Lighthouse area. Here are some of the sights we savored that day.

Called Outer Point Reyes, this part of the peninsula extends 13 miles into the Pacific Ocean.

Usually it is dense with fog–wet fog obliterating every view; and gusting, buffeting winds so strong that you can’t stand still even if you tried.

Often when you stand at the top of these steps (below), you can’t even see the lighthouse. But not that day.

The first magical moment came when we were still in the parking lot. We were at the back of our car donning extra layers of clothes.

Far from any humans in a nearly empty parking lot, out of the blue a middle-aged man walked up to us. He said we might be interested in the whales. He’d been watching them for quite some time…”lots of spouts” out there.

Binoculars in hand, we walked to the overlook with him, facing out at the glorious expanse of the Pacific Ocean. He pointed out the spouts.

It was the most amazing sight! Over two dozen whale spouts silently shooting out of the sea.

Many of the spouts were difficult to photograph because they were so far away. But this photo below shows several.

Soon after, he drove off in his sports car.

Point Reyes is a marine sanctuary where gray whales can safely travel in their migration south. (Eschrichtius robustus)

They are headed for Baja California in Mexico where they will mate and give birth, and then return to the Arctic when the weather warms.

Sometimes a fluke breached the water, visible through binoculars.

We watched the whales for nearly an hour. Also saw a peregrine falcon soaring around the lighthouse, several turkey vultures, a wren and a busy black phoebe.

Next we ventured over to Drakes Bay to see if the elephant seals were at the overlook near Chimney Rock.

On the way, few cars were on the road, so wildlife were close.

We noticed the land mammals had thicker coats for the winter.

Another pleasant surprise greeted us at the elephant seal overlook: about a half-dozen elephant seals were frolicking and vocalizing. They are often seen sleeping soundly in the warmth of the sun…can easily be mistaken for driftwood.

But these were young males having some play time. These individuals have not yet acquired their enlarged noses that resemble elephant snouts or proboscis.

Brown pelicans, western grebes, various species of ducks and kelp seaweed were also in the water.

Turkey vultures, songbirds, ravens and flickers flew overhead.

Before heading home, we were treated to one last delight.

On the main road there are numerous dairy farms. Acres of pasture and herds of cows, a few ranches with barns and houses.

We were driving past a herd of dairy cows when we spotted three tule elk bulls quietly grazing beside the cows. All mammals were fenced in and safe from traffic. There is a tule elk preserve miles away; apparently they are escapees. Renegades. And so majestic.

Every day in the wilderness is one of beauty. Fog and wind are beautiful…rainy days are too. But occasionally a really special day comes along with sunny skies, tranquil moments, and a dazzling array of wildlife…extraordinary beauty.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Fresnel Lens Yesterday and Today

With the long, dark winter nights we’re experiencing in the Northern Hemisphere, it is a good time to celebrate the marvel of an invention that brought light to our world centuries ago, and still today.

Even before the first light bulb was invented, a powerful lens was invented.

It was a modern invention of the 1820s that revolutionized the sciences of light and marine navigation.

The lens design, created by a physicist, was maximized to capture light reflection and refraction. It is an array of prisms managing the mechanics of light, extending the light to then-unprecedented lengths.

The inventor, Augustin Fresnel (1788-1827), lived on the rugged west coast of France near Brittany, where tragic shipwrecks repeatedly occurred and human lives frequently perished. He invented the lens for lighthouses, to light up the coast more efficiently for ship captains to see what was in front of them. The first Fresnel lens was installed there, on the coast of France, in 1822.

A Fresnel lens could easily throw its light 20 or more miles.

France, and then Scotland, commissioned the lenses for lighthouses; eventually they spread across the world. The Fresnel lens came to U.S. lighthouses in the 1850s.

Prior to the Fresnel (pronounced fray-NEL) lens invention, oil lamps supplied the light and various inventions helped extend the light, but it was not enough to prevent shipwrecks.

I came upon this discovery not by navigating a ship along the coast, but by hiking on an island in the San Francisco Bay. Angel Island.

In the visitor center, a nearly two-foot glass structure shaped like a beehive was perched on a stand near the door–caught my attention.

I am one of those people who stops in their tracks for shadows and sunbeams, fascinated by reflections and refractions. And this giant piece of glass was winking up a storm at me.

It is 21.3 inches high (.54 m). Fresnel lenses come in different sizes, or orders. Both lenses in this post are 5th Order. 1st Order is the largest, 6th Order is smaller. Link for more info is below.

The original Fresnel lenses can often be seen in lighthouses, like this one at Point Robinson on Vashon Island in Washington. The lamp/lens is inside the lighthouse (below), visible underneath the red, cone-shaped roof.

Here is a closer look at the lens, with majestic Mount Rainier presiding in the background.

Though there are still Fresnel lenses in lighthouses today, the science has largely been replaced by navigational systems like radar and radio signal towers and global positioning systems (GPS).

There are many lighthouses that still have the original Fresnel lenses, most of which are no longer operational. Almost always the lens/lamp is there due to a concerted effort by maritime enthusiasts, volunteers, and donations. Today they are highly regarded and valuable treasures.

The United States Lighthouse Society has a website filled with information about U.S. lighthouses including two lists of lighthouses that have operational and non-operational Fresnel Lenses.

Link: Fresnel Lenses in the U.S.

Link: Operational Fresnel Lenses in the U.S.

Link: Wikipedia Fresnel Lens

Link: Augustin-Jean Fresnel Wikipedia

The magic of the Fresnel lens does not stop in the 1800s. Today working Fresnel lenses are found in spotlights, floodlights, railroad and traffic signals, emergency vehicle lights and more.

Photographers use them to illuminate a scene. Athena uses a Fresnel lens flash extender on her camera, especially when we are out birding on night walks or dark days. It is a flimsy plastic lens that attaches to the flash unit and extends the flash up to 300 feet (91 m).

She captured this scene below with her “Better Beamer” flash extender. We were in the Belizean rainforest when a spectacled owl had just snatched up a fer-de-lance snake and landed in a tree 200 feet away (61 m).

The Fresnel lens has been bringing light into this world for ages, whether it was preventing fatal shipwrecks two centuries ago or capturing dynamic owl scenes today. That is something to celebrate.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

On the Dock of the Bay

Beautiful day at Bodega Bay, a spot in northern California that I gravitate to several times a year. Our visit earlier this month was highlighted by my dear sister and brother-in-law joining Athena, her camera, and me.

Upon our arrival, fishing boats were traversing the marked channels and fog horns pierced through the briny, moist air.

There is a commercial fish-cleaning dock I like to go to early when the fishing activity is bustling. We can usually find opportunistic sea lions vying for scraps thrown in the water.

This day we found two sea lions hauled out on the dock of the bay. They were sleepy, intertwined.

Common on our west coast, California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) are classified as eared seals in the Otariidae family. They’re called eared seals because they have visible ear flaps; seals don’t have these. You can see the “ears” in the next two close-ups.

I’ve read they can turn the flaps downward while swimming and diving, so water doesn’t enter their ears. They have hearing function both in air and under water.

California Sea Lions Wikipedia

Eventually one sea lion went for a swim. This sea mammal weighs several hundred pounds, and yet they manage to slip into the water almost soundlessly.

But the quiet ended there when the docked sea lion began barking very loudly…and went on for about five minutes.

This sleepy harbor seal dozed through all the commotion.

The bay is lively with birds, too.

By now the winter birds have migrated here from colder climes. Marbled godwits, a shorebird, and surf scoters, a sea duck, were two species we were celebrating that day, as we do not see them in most other months of the year. By March or so they will be heading back north.

Here are the marbled godwits (below). They are distinctive for their long, bi-colored bill.

Surf scoters are eye-catching with the male’s bright-colored bill, white eyes and white markings. Found all along our west coast in winter, they are large ducks, males measure at 19 inches long (48 cm).

Other bird species around the bay included western grebes, a few common loons and many herons and egrets. This snowy egret, below, found delicacies in tide-soaked sea grass.

There is a small pond by the bay where a gregarious flock of yellow-rumped warblers popped around. We’re lucky they spend their winters here on the west coast.

A five-minute drive up from the bay is a Pacific Ocean overlook called Bodega Head that offers hiking and gorgeous ocean views. Whales can be spotted from up here too, but not until about January.

The ocean rocks showcased brown pelicans, western gulls, Brandt’s and double-crested cormorants. A friendly birder with a scope gave us a distant view of a common murre, as black oystercatchers called from the rocks.

On the west coast we have black oystercatchers with a black belly, red bill and red eye; whereas the east coast has the American oystercatcher, a white-bellied bird.

The tide was low so we had the added pleasure of spotting a few sea stars clinging to the sides of the rocks (below).

We ate our packed lunch and watched the birds, humans and sea mammals as they foraged for sea life.

Then, after hours at the coast, it was time to head home. Fog horns continued their rhythmic warnings as we reluctantly drove off.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Foggy Morning

My morning walks this week have been blessedly cool and shrouded in fog…please join me.

In Northern California this time of year the nights have become longer and cooler, and fog lingers in our valley until about 9 a.m.

I love it like this. Droplets in the air and fog dripping from the leaves means moisture…a pleasant respite from the monthslong drought typical of our summers. It brings us hope for rainy months in the winter ahead.

The local deer, the black-tailed species, quietly graze in the hush of the fog. They are a sub-species of mule deer. (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus)

In the summer the wild turkeys were often under cover as they raised their vulnerable chicks. But now they’re out in the mornings in family flocks, feeding on the ground seeds.

We do have changing colored leaves on the west coast in autumn, though not as prominent as our American friends in the east.

Color comes out in the liquidambar trees, pyracantha and other berries, deciduous oaks and still-flowering ornamental gardens.

The California buckeye trees (Aesculus californica), an endemic and the only buckeye native to the state, are completely leafless already. For a month they have had no leaves, baring only their dangling poisonous seeds, also known as horse chestnuts.

On my walk I found a fallen buckeye and brought it home to crack open and show you.

Gradually the morning quietness perked up with the chatter of songbirds as the shrouded sunshine began its rise.

With the autumn weather new songbird migrants have arrived from the north, including the Oregon dark-eyed junco subspecies, coming to join the resident juncos. Junco hyemalis.

The clear, plaintive notes of a white-crowned sparrow cut through all the fog…but the loud and distinctive honking of the Canada Geese quickly drowned it out.

The geese congregate every morning in this field. As we walked closer, we witnessed smaller groups descending through the fog, seeing them long after hearing them.

Eventually the sun started to burn off the fog and a patch of blue sky peeked through here and there, until its light and warmth had pierced the heavy marine layer.

The sun brightened the garden colors and highlighted the friendliest scarecrow I have ever seen.

This time of year, chili peppers can be seen in many gardens.

This golden-crowned sparrow had a moment of glory when the sun brightened his namesake crown.

As our final steps brought us to the front door, an Anna’s hummingbird bid us adieu.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

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.