Vultures are Cool

We were driving on a California country road this week surrounded by sweetly fragrant ceanothus wildflowers, when we came upon two lethargic turkey vultures standing in the road. Turns out they were doing us a big favor.

Because they were not moving for us, we slowly drove toward them and eventually they lifted slightly and got out of the road. But in the next moment a strong, putrid whiff of dead animal reached us. There was no carcass to be seen on this overgrown roadside, but somewhere nearby there was a dead and rotting animal.

Fortunately the vultures were on the job. They are a gregarious species, so eventually this dead animal will be completely consumed. The birds were lethargic because they were full.

There are 23 extant species of vultures in the world: 16 in the Old World (Africa, Asia, Europe) and 7 in the New World (the Americas).

Here in the U.S. we have three vulture species, all are pictured in this post: turkey vulture, black vulture, and California Condor.

More info: Vulture Wikipedia

The turkey vulture is the most widespread vulture species in the New World. Cathartes aura is a year-round bird in the warmer U.S. states and South America. We have them year-round in California.

Just about every time I am outside, nearly every day, I see at least one turkey vulture soaring overhead.

This is their classic look in flight, below.

Another common vulture sight is this one, below. It is called a horaltic stance, and serves multiple functions: drying the wings, warming the body, and baking off bacteria.

This is a turkey vulture nestling, below. The nest was in a small rock cave.

Turkey vultures do not have a vocal organ, so you don’t usually hear anything from them. But that day we found this baby turkey vulture, it elicited a shockingly evil hissing sound that I still hear in my mind when I look at the above photo.

Vultures are important for cleaning up the carrion that naturally exists on our planet. A vulture’s featherless head and hooked bill, seen below, are their carrion-eating tools.

They are also equipped with exceptionally corrosive stomach acid, allowing them to digest putrid carcasses infected with toxins and bacteria.

When not soaring, they fly closer to the ground, using their keen olfactory sense to detect the smell of gas (ethyl mercaptan) produced by a dead, decaying animal.

We spotted this vulture species (below), California Condor aka Gymnogyps californianus, on the California coast near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur. Ten years ago. We had visited a popular condor release site without success three years earlier, and finally had success in Big Sur, another release site, with this one. We actually saw two at the time, for about five really thrilling minutes.

They have the largest wingspan of any North American bird, measuring approximately10 feet (3.05 m).

There is an interesting story about this individual, #90, I’ll tell you another time.

California Condors are listed on the conservation status as critically endangered, and many vulture species have suffered a rapid decline due to loss of habitat, intentional and unintentional poisoning, and electrocution.

India and other countries have discovered that without vultures to pick animal corpses clean, there have been increased feral dog populations leading to increased dog bites and increased rabies transmission. But the problem is, protection comes too late. Vultures do not reproduce quickly. (In the U.S., vultures are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.)

While in Africa on numerous safaris, I have had the pleasure of watching many African vultures. It is not the loveliest sight, seeing a vulture dig around in the intestines of a carcass, but it is interesting to see the hierarchy of animals and the bonanza that unfolds when one wild animal has killed another. Equally fascinating is observing how the parade of scavengers completely devours the carcass.

One day we had the rare honor of seeing a pack of wild dogs in Botswana. Before we arrived, they had killed an impala and dined extravagantly. Then they ran off in a frolic of energetic euphoria and the vultures came in.

A closer look reveals their bloody faces.

Here are the white-backed vultures, Gyps africanus, that attended the carcass after the wild dogs were done. You can see the head of the vulture on the left is deeply inside the carcass.

These vultures have a wingspan of 6-7 feet (1.96-2.25m), and are now, unfortunately, critically endangered.

Another time we came upon this baby elephant carcass. Vultures and storks were feeding. You can see the skull on the far right…it has been picked clean.

These banded mongooses were watching the frenzy.

Fantastic creatures with unique features, vultures help keep this earth safe and clean. Next time you smell sweetness in the air, remember it could be more than flowers at work.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Nuptial Ants

This is a spring nature phenomenon that I find fascinating: the nuptial ant flight. It is subtle and short-lived…and a wonder to witness.

It looks like a lot of small moths flying in random directions. But on closer look, it is ants with wings. Thousands of them. And they are all emerging from the same spot in the ground.

If you look closely at the bug on the lizard’s mouth, below, you see it is an ant with wings. You can also see how the lizard has strategically positioned himself at the feast, all around him are the winged ants.

The ants with wings, also known as alates, have been selected by their ant society to perpetuate the colony. There are thousands of them because many of them will end up in a predator’s mouth, like this lucky lizard’s.

It is an important phase in insect reproduction and occurs in ants, termites, and some bee species. (I have only witnessed it in ants.)

More info: antkeepers.com

Here is a photo of a carpenter ant nest on a normal day. Worker ants doing their job. Every black dot is a busy ant.

And here is a close-up of a nest hole.

Down below and out of our sight is a highly organized ant colony, millions of ants. Their social system is elaborate with various castes of workers, soldiers and more.

It’s a different scene on the Big Day when the colony releases winged fertile males (drones) and females (queens) to mate, form new colonies. They come shooting out of the hole by the thousands.

On earth we have 22,000 different species of ants. One of the world’s leading experts on ants, E. O. Wilson, estimated that the total biomass of all the ants in the world is approximately equal to the total biomass of the entire human race.

The success of their species is attributed to their social organization and drive to collectively work to support the colony.

On the day of their nuptial flight, a day they have been building toward, the winged reproductive ants leave the nest in a powerful pursuit.

It is a perilous journey. Predators will gobble up many of them.

Lizards have long tongues they can rapidly flick out and snatch up prey, and this little guy was very practiced at the art.

Here you can see his tongue. And his little legs are stretched out in his feeding frenzy.

I have seen so many of these emergences that when I see warblers or swallows or other creatures behaving erratically and in large numbers, I stop whatever I am doing and investigate.

The emergence is fast. The flying ants come spewing out of a hole, sometimes a crack in a rock…and in a few minutes it is over.

Lizards scurry, birds swoop — all the wildlife get lined up to partake of this delicious opportunity.

Here in Northern California I have seen it the most in April, often a day or so after it has rained. But I’ve also seen it on warm fall days. It’s different for every ant species.

Last week we were enjoying tea on the deck when swallows started congregating just above us.

On most spring or summer days we see one violet-green swallow, or a pair, in some nest activity.

That day there were 20 or 30 swallows within minutes– circling and diving and air-catching the flying ants. This photo shows numerous swallows in pursuit; the ants are so tiny they cannot be seen here.

Usually the event is so chaotic that you wouldn’t guess it was an ant thing, especially since it is airborne and involves so many wings. What you see is a flurry of diaphanous wings fluttering in hundreds of different directions.

The emergence is partly based on weather conditions: not too windy or cold, and wet but not too wet.

Every black dot on these rocks is an alate or winged ant.

It never lasts more than ten minutes.

When the flying ants are no longer spewing from the ground, the predators leave, the show is over.

The males mate with the queens and their life is over. The queen chews off her wings and begins the excavation of her new chamber where she will begin laying eggs.

What a species!

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Swallowtail Butterflies

Butterflies are the brightness and lightness of spring that we often long for in the dark and heavy days of winter. And then one day it IS spring and we see our first butterfly.

They are a gentle reminder that life on earth is all about change.

Butterflies start out as microscopic eggs, then become tiny worm-like larvae, then grow bigger into caterpillars, molting numerous times. Next they create their own cocoons, and, as we all know, then metamorphize from their pupae state into a butterfly. What an earthly marvel this is.

Below are five photos of the Anise Swallowtail butterfly, Papilio zelicaon, in its various stages.

One summer day two years ago as Athena was photographing, this butterfly’s wriggling and arched thorax posture (below) caught her eye. She realized she was witnessing the adult female depositing her eggs. The eggs are microscopic, cannot be seen here.

This is a caterpillar’s early “instar” or stage (below). It is about the size of a staple and is so small and inconspicuous it can easily be mistaken as a bird dropping.

Several times the anise swallowtail caterpillar molts into a bigger skin. You can see how different the caterpillar above is from the caterpillar below — yet they are the same species, just different stages.

After the various instar caterpillar stages, they create their pupa (below) and stay in there, immovable, until the caterpillar tissues break down and rebuild into butterfly tissues.

While each stage is beautiful, the butterfly stage is spectacular.

There are about 17,500 species of butterflies in the world.

Pictured throughout this post are all swallowtail butterfly species. Members of the Papilionidae family, there are about 550 species.

Swallowtail Wikipedia link.

We noticed a butterfly phenomenon one day on the edge of the Belizean rainforest. These Dark Kite-swallowtails were “puddling,” a technique for extracting minerals, primarily salt. Protographium philolaus.

You can see the pronounced forked hindwings, aka as tails, for which the swallowtails are named. This “tail” is reminiscent of the forked tails of swallows.

Swallowtails are some of the largest butterflies on earth. Some species are so large that on first take you think it might be a bird. Both species below have whopping wingspans at around five inches (13 cm).

The Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) is the largest butterfly in North America.

I am often buoyed by these dancing kaleidoscopic creatures who start out so immobile and teensy and dark, and as each day turns to the next, they somehow know what to do. Soon they have mysteriously blossomed into delicate splendor.

The earth changes; we change. Thank heaven for butterflies who show us the way.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Sand Dunes at Abbotts Lagoon

A recent Valentine’s Day visit to Abbotts Lagoon took us past the lagoon, adventuring along the sand dunes.

Abbotts Lagoon is an area within Point Reyes National Seashore, Northern California.

More info: Abbotts Lagoon Wikipedia.

Point Reyes is a unique place on earth because it is at the junction of two major tectonic plates: Pacific and North American. Located in the San Andreas Fault Zone, the Point Reyes peninsula has, as you can see from the map at the end, been slowly separating from the U.S. mainland over eons of tectonic movement. Wikipedia says “In the 1906 earthquake, Point Reyes moved north 21 ft (6.4 m).”

This ongoing plate movement has yielded many different land formations in Point Reyes.

Abbotts Lagoon, located on the northwest tip of the peninsula, has a two-stage lagoon, sandstone cliffs, and ocean beaches.

Link: U.S. Geological Survey on Point Reyes

The trail starts at the parking lot on Pierce Point Road and is 3.6 miles long–to the ocean and back. For the first mile-and-a-half, the trail is gravel and relatively flat and lies in a protected valley. The surrounding terrain is coastal chaparral.

There are always California quail, white-crowned sparrows, and black-tailed deer in this section.

But the closer we get to the sea, the more things change. The gravel under your feet turns to sand.

Then slight hills begin to lift the hiker out of the valley, the dunes come into view, and we are greeted by brisk ocean winds. This photo (below) shows the lagoon in the lower half of the photo, the dunes in the middle, and the Pacific Ocean just above the dunes revealing whitecaps on our February day.

Although the sand is loose, vegetation takes hold in some places.

The trail ends at the upper lagoon and ocean; there’s a short bridge to cross. At different times of the year we see otters frolicking beneath the bridge. There were no otters that day, but we did find recent otter prints in the sand. In a couple more months, swallows will start nesting on the bridge’s underside.

Foraging around the lagoon are a variety of waders and ducks. That day we saw common mergansers; some days we have seen large flocks of white pelicans here, also cormorants, gulls, herons and many species of shore birds.

This great egret was enjoying a fishy snack.

We also came across three piles of feathers and bones, presumably from a prowling coyote’s success the night before.

Turkey vultures partake in these events too.

Beach strawberries (Fragaria chiloensis), vines and flowers, were taking hold in the loose sand. Chilly February temperatures will eventually give way to warmer days when the strawberries will leaf out more.

This giant tree has been occupying the beach through all the decades I have hiked here. It is a popular place for hikers to stop and take a rest from the laboring loose-sand walk, and little kids climb all over it. We perched here and turned our backs to the wind, enjoying the fresh air and moody sky.

At this point, the beach starts to open up, leading to the ocean’s shoreline. Climbing the dunes yields ocean views.

This area of open sand is meticulously marked and roped off from Memorial Day to Labor Day to give the snowy plovers a safe, protective place to lay their eggs in the sand.

But on a gusty Valentine’s Day, there were no snowy plovers and few humans…and my heart was filled with the beauty and wildness that is Abbotts Lagoon.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Point Reyes map. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Aussie Backroad Thrill

This was a backroad adventure that topped all, one afternoon in Queensland Australia.

Photographers, wildlife observers and adventurers, we seek out the backroads, carving time out of our schedules to slow down, look around, and embrace whatever comes our way.

We had been in the area of North Queensland for two weeks and had managed to keep our rental car on the “wrong” side of the road with success. Three days in the field with an expert bird guide had acquainted us with billabongs and kangaroos and all kinds of Aussie oddities.

After our time with the guide ended, Athena and I hit the backroads all on our own. We were in the Wet Tropics of Queensland, a unique and rugged tropical rainforest, about 30 miles inland from coastal Cairns.

Tropical rainforests are generally rainy and dark and dank, and this was no exception.

It was humid and we had the car windows open, driving slowly and listening to the birds that dominated the surrounding forest. Narrow lanes branched off the road in this dense thicket leading to occasional modest houses barely visible through the vines and trees.

Spotted Catbirds called incessantly–a green-backed bird who sounds like a city alley cat that’s just had its tail stepped on.

Here’s what they sound like: Spotted catbird sound.

Doves monotonously cooed, while cockatoos and parrots squawked and ate flowers, perched on vines.

All around us the forest canopy dripped with moisture and shrieked with cackles and cries.

By now we were familiar with the brush turkeys who roamed the trails, and whipbirds with piercing calls that sound like cracking whips.

Eucalyptus and giant strangler fig trees were by now familiar, too.

We were adept at spotting many strange creatures, but what we found that day on the Kuranda Forest backroad was beyond our wildest dreams.

Fortunately we were inside the car when it happened…

when the human-sized bird, the Southern Cassowary, silently emerged from the forest.

A heavy flightless bird with a long colorful neck and ostrich-like body was walking down the road toward us.

This was an adult male and it didn’t take long to see he had three chicks in tow.

Casuarius casuarius are extremely rare to find in Australia. Endangered.

We had already had a thrilling but terrifying experience with a cassowary deep in a different rainforest, days earlier. They are one of our planet’s fiercest birds. They have lethal claws on their feet and can quickly, if threatened, kick a human to death.

But this time we were in a safer position, in the car.

We knew not to stir; not to get out of the car or make any sudden movements, as it would scare off the cassowaries.

He knew we were there, but quickly assessed we were no threat.

He walked down the muddy road slowly, leading his three progeny, stopping occasionally to search for food.

Although they were chicks, they were not small. One day, if they are lucky to survive, they will grow up to be as tall as a human. But for now they were new to this planet, and still about knee-high.

We quietly whispered our triumphal exclamations and barely moved, eager to keep the cassowaries in our presence for as long as possible. The whole encounter lasted about ten blissful minutes.

We were lucky no other car, dog, or human came along to scare them away.

It was just a quiet time alone with a family of four cassowaries.

Eventually they slowly sauntered back into the forest, vanished into the mass of trees and vines.

Wherever and whenever I can, I take the backroads. You never know what you might find.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Casuarius distribution map.png
Range map. Southern Cassowary range in orange

Sacramento Natl. Wildlife Refuge 2022

Our day last week at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge was another bonanza of wildlife, a particularly exciting adventure in the middle of winter.

The enormous number of birds is what keeps things so interesting. It is a 10,819-acre (43.78 sq. km.) wetland expanse; a wintering home to hundreds of thousands of migrating geese, ducks and other waterfowl.

The Northern California migration typically lasts from November through January, depending on the weather.

The most predominate goose species every year is the Snow Goose. They come from Wrangell Island in Siberia (U.S.S.R.) and spend the winter here in our milder climate.

This year there were also several hundred Ross’s geese.

And thousands of White-fronted Geese.

What we saw were waves and waves of white geese flying in all different directions.

What we heard was the most magnificent cacophony of honking and squawking.

This is a good representational recording: Click here for Snow Geese flock cacophony.

There are also many duck species who winter in the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.

Last week the major duck species was the Northern Shovelers. Last month, according to the Survey Summary, there were a lot of pintail ducks. It varies depending on the month and weather.

Northern Shovelers (Spatula clypeata) have similar coloring to mallards, but their namesake shovel-shaped bills easily distinguish them. They can often be seen swinging their spatulate bills from side to side in the water as they strain aquatic vegetation, plankton, and tiny invertebrates.

We often saw the Shovelers like this…

…but just as often like this.

The geese and ducks are only part of the refuge extravaganza, for there are also songbirds, shorebirds, waders, gulls, grebes, woodpeckers, raptors and other birds.

Here a white-faced ibis joined the northern shovelers. Tall bird in center with the long bill.

We spotted this adult and immature pair of bald eagles early on our auto tour (photo below). From this distance it looks like two dots in the tallest tree.

We knew we would get a better look at them as we progressed down the road.

At times we heard them calling out–a screeching sound.

And eventually we came closer.

The adult was easier to spot due to the characteristic white head.

It takes 4-5 years for a bald eagle to reach maturity, acquire the white head and tail. Prior to that there are many stages of maturation.

The immature bald eagle (below) still had a gray bill and a dark head, so is probably around 2-3 years old.

The young eagle’s flying was accomplished, and we enjoyed watching him/her swoop over the ducks, practicing bravado. The ducks scattered in a flutter of wingbeats when the young eagle came near.

We spotted western meadowlarks numerous times that day. They brighten up the brown landscape with their vivacious yellow markings, and even more bright is their song. A magical fluty series of notes.

We have always seen an interesting array of mammals here too. This year we saw nearly a dozen black-tailed jackrabbits, a striped skunk and a ground squirrel.

Two years ago we came upon a trio of river otters in one of the water-filled ditches. They were having a grand time catching fish, and the feeding frenzy lasted at least a half-hour.

Reptiles also joined last week’s fracas. First there were two western pond turtles on a log. Soon a third and then a fourth climbed onto the same log.

Throughout the whole turtle encounter, I noticed there was one who kept opening its mouth wide. You can see it in this photo, third from the left.

Come to think of it, it seems like all these wildly beautiful creatures seemed to have their mouths open that day. The geese were honking, mallards laughing uproariously, the bald eagles were screeching and the meadowlarks were warbling.

Made me want to sing too.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Snipe

I had the fortune of seeing a family of snipe this week. This is a bird that few people notice or know of, and some people think is imaginary.

Wilson’s Snipe, Gallinago delicata, is in the shorebird family: Scolopacidae. It is the most common snipe in North America.

They are short, pudgy birds about the size of an American Robin; usually found in marshes, with sandy coloring and markings that perfectly camouflage them.

This is the family of four we spotted while birding at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge this week.

With the tall grass and their camouflage, you can see how tricky they are to spot. They are standing (above photo) in the tall grass that spans the photo’s upper center. In the foreground on a log is a pair of resting green-winged teals.

We were on our annual visit to see the waterfowl winter migration. A spectacle that always delights.

While there, we spotted the snipes. In addition to their camouflaging, they have elusive behavior.

In over 30 years of birding, I have seen the snipe only about a half-dozen times. Spotting four at once was an unprecedented bonanza.

We were on the Refuge’s auto tour at one of the few places where we were allowed to get out of our car. We were having lunch: enjoying a bite, then scanning with the binoculars, listening to the cacophony of migrating geese and ducks, taking another bite, then looking through the spotting scope. To birders like Athena and me, this is heaven.

In our initial 360-degree binocular scan of the area, we spotted the snipes and enjoyed close to an hour there.

They never changed positions in that hour, except an occasional head lift.

This is the scene without extra lenses.

They use their long bill to probe into the mud for food. Their diet consists of insect larvae and insects like dragonflies, beetles and moths; and invertebrates like snails and worms.

Two special features of that marvelous bill: it is flexible and thereby good for probing; and the snipe can swallow small prey without pulling their bill from the mud.

John James Audubon wrote an extensive observation about the snipe–it’s behavior, migration, flight, breeding, and more.

Link: Audubon’s Birds of America, American Snipe

They do not breed in Northern California, and I have never seen the mating displays. But I have read they have a spectacular flight dance.

Here is Audubon’s description of the flight dance of a snipe pair:

It often happens that before these birds depart in spring, many are already mated. The birds are then met with in meadows or on low grounds, and, by being on the spot before sunrise, you may see both mount high in the air in a spiral manner, now with continuous beats of the wings, now in short sailings, until more than a hundred yards high, when they whirl round each other with extreme velocity, and dance as it were to their own music; for at this juncture, and during the space of five or six minutes, you hear rolling notes mingling together, each more or less distinct….”

Audubon’s snipe drawing, Plate 243, is below. It was completed in 1835. This is an online partial drawing.

“American Snipe” by John J. Audubon, Plate 243. Courtesy audubon.org

In Audubon’s time (1785-1851), the bird was called the American Snipe. At that time, Alexander Wilson, a Scottish-American ornithologist and illustrator, was the first to prove the snipe here in America was different than the Common Snipe of Europe. So it was dubbed the American Snipe.

Over the years it would be named the Common Snipe, and then more recently it was further classified into two bird species, the most common American Snipe being named Wilson’s Snipe.

Why is it an imaginary bird to some people?

Because there is an age-old trick dating back to the mid-1800s called the Snipe hunt. As a rite-of-passage trick, elders tell a young person how to hunt for snipe (or some other non-existing creature), and then leave them alone in the woods with an empty bag and instructions for catching it. It’s a fool’s errand that tricks young ones into goofy behavior alone in the woods while everyone else runs away. Many youngsters, after the gig is up, think there is no such thing as a snipe.

As we sat eating lunch, basking in the sunshine and the thrill of being near four snipes, a few people walked by. We invited them to take a look in the scope at the snipe.

Their enthusiastic reactions and comments indicated they knew of the snipe but had rarely seen one. All were in awe.

This is a photo taken through the spotting scope.

We spotted nearly 40 different bird species that day, and thousands and thousands of migrating waterfowl visiting Northern California from as far north as Russia’s East Siberian Sea and North America’s Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. An incredible migration that I will tell you more about soon.

Fortunately for us, snipes are not imaginary. They are old and ancient friends of Homo sapiens. The name may change occasionally, but the bird has been occupying marsh shorelines for well over 187 years.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Range Map for Wilson's Snipe
Range map Gallinago delicata. Ora=Breeding; Yel=Migration; Pur=Year-round; Blue=Nonbreeding. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org.

Waters in the Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta is an inland delta in southern Africa, with waters formed by seasonal flooding. When the water is here, wildlife abound.

More info: Okavango Delta Wikipedia.

The Delta is flat and vast, covering 5,800 square miles (15,000 sq. km.); on the edge of the Kalahari Desert.

We visited this UNESCO World Heritage Site years back in August, when the Okavango River floods the Delta and wildlife congregate.

Large African antelope called waterbuck are often found around water because they cannot tolerate dehydration.

Little Bee-eaters perch as they wait for bees. If you watch bee-eaters long enough, you have the pleasure of watching one sally out in a flash, grab a bee, whack it against a tree, and come back to the perch to consume it.

Hippopotamuses are semiaquatic mammals; they spend their days in lakes and rivers, staying cool in water or mud. At night they graze on grasses.

This is a rufous-bellied heron we watched wrestling with a carp. He swallowed it whole.

Other bird species we commonly found foraging in the Okavango Delta waters were jacana and the fish eagle.

Jacanas have feet designed to evenly distribute the weight of the bird so they can walk atop lily pads. But in many parts of the Delta their long legs take them through shallower waters.

The African Fish Eagle, a raptor, was fierce and vigilant and commonly found in many watery parts.

Other raptors were the African Barred Owl and Black-shouldered Kite. They, too, found their perches and stealthily waited.

Wattled cranes, the largest cranes in Africa and globally threatened, forage on aquatic tubers and rhizomes of submerged sedges and water lilies. It was thrilling to find this trio, for this crane species is rare to find.

The hamerkop is one of my favorite birds, named for the hammer shape of its head. We didn’t see them too often but when we did, we watched intently.

Blacksmith Plovers in their bold patterning were often seen in the waterways.

We passed this hippo pond at sunset and watched their antics until the day’s light had receded.

There are over 5,000 species of wild mammals and over 10,000 species of birds on this planet. I am glad I could share a few of them from the Okavango Delta with you.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Our Winter Thrushes

We are fortunate in Northern California to have four species of thrushes join us for the winter months. Here’s a brief look at these beautiful birds.

Although Northern California is not warm in the winter, it is temperate enough that some bird species migrate here. We have driving rain and icy nights, but the sun comes out often and when it does, the birds leave their roosts in search of food.

For the thrushes, berries are a big draw.

Our four thrush species are “true thrushes,” all from the family Turidae: American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, and Western Bluebird.

Many years, especially in the last decade, if we are in a drought and haven’t had enough autumn rain, the berries don’t form. They start to grow, but without rain the berries shrivel up and drop to the ground.

But this past autumn we had plenty of rain, and consequently this winter there are berries everywhere. And thrushes everywhere.

Red berries on toyon, pyracantha, and cotoneaster shrubs; orange berries on the madrone trees.

American Robins, Turdus migratorius, are here year-round. In warm months we see them in pairs or small groups. In winter we have our local residents plus the migrants from Canada and Alaska, resulting in gloriously huge flocks.

Sometimes there will be 10 or 20 of them, rustling in the trees and bushes, plucking berries and chuckling as they engage in their lunch party. They are a big bird with whirring wingbeats, easy to hear and see.

Other times they can be flying high overhead in a flock of 60-100, often crossing the sky at the end of the day getting in one last meal before bedtime. The sky is absolutely filled with them. It’s one of my favorite winter sights, and I stop in my tracks when I hear them overhead…gaze up.

The hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus) and varied thrushes (Ixoreus naevius) are migrants, spend the winter here but only if there are berries. There are many years when they arrive in autumn, having flown long distances from Canada and northern states. If they discover only shriveled berries, they leave within a day and don’t return until next season.

With the gift of rain this year, both the hermit and varied thrushes have spent the winter.

Varied thrushes are west coast birds. They spend the winter here on the coast from Northern California all the way up to northern British Columbia.

On Christmas Day in 2015 we were in a Northern California giant redwood forest when we spotted this female popping around in the undergrowth.

In the eastern parts of the country, bird aficionados associate the hermit thrushes with their melodious flute-like song. The song, however, is part of their breeding ceremonials, and has nothing to do with winter foraging.

The call of the hermit here in winter is simply “chup-chup.” The varied thrush sound is a unique two-toned call that cuts through the forest on a rainy winter day.

Hermit Thrush sound, click here.

Varied Thrush sound, click here.

The bluebirds. Many people don’t realize bluebirds are thrushes, in the Turidae family.

Sialia mexicana, western bluebirds, live here year-round. This photo was taken on a March afternoon.

In spring they breed and nest, but in the winter they are searching for insects and berries.

This past summer I wrote a post about a pair of bluebirds who were nesting in the carcass of a burned tree. Some readers may remember this. (New Life in a Dead Tree.)

The brood was successful and when the chicks were big enough, the family of four left the nest and went out into the world.

Imagine what a thrill it was this past week when we returned to that meadow, on a short walk between rains, and saw the family. They perched very near to their home spot, the dead tree, chirped a cheerful hello to us, and then off they went in search of a meal.

There is something very special about the winter birds. When the flowers are gone and landscapes are stark and temperatures make you shiver, it is heartwarming to have a little aviary friend by your side.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Looking Ahead

From the galaxies above…

to the sea floor below…

and everything in between.

Let us find the tools to see past the noise of the day,

and recognize the heroes and miracles

that surround us every day.

Happy New Year, dear Readers.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.