Birds of the California Desert

We are lucky in this great state of California to have many different environmental habitats, providing a rich variety of bird and wildlife species. Let’s cruise down to southern California for desert birds.

There are dozens and dozens of bird species in the California desert. Some species reside in a variety of habitats across the state, some migrate through the desert, and yet others who reside in the desert. We’ll focus on a few of the desert dwellers here.

To me, there’s no bird that says “desert” more than the roadrunner. The California species is the Greater roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus, in the cuckoo family.

Much like another desert dweller, the lizard, Greater roadrunners use thermoregulation to manage their bodies in extreme heat. They soak up the sun to get their energy by sunbathing. With wings apart and backs to the sun, they ruffle their feathers to expose their skin underneath to absorb the sun’s heat.

More info here: Greater Roadrunner Wikipedia

Roadrunners are very fast birds running at 20 mph (32 km/h) and more–they’re faster running than any other bird that flies (ostriches are faster, but don’t fly). Most of the time they are on the ground running, not flying, using their long tail as a rudder.

We saw these roadrunners in the Salton Sea years ago.

The phainopepla is another desert bird.

We often saw them flying into the desert mistletoe for berries, but capturing a photo proved tricky…they’re skittish.

Years ago we saw this female phainopepla, below, in Big Morongo Canyon Preserve outside of Palm Springs.

At the time we were hoping to get a photo of the glossy male, too, and finally did…but not until 12 years later when we returned to the California desert this month.

Interestingly, phainopeplas have a specialized mechanism in their gizzard to digest mistletoe berry skins.

A few other birds in the California desert include: Verdin, Gambel’s Quail, Abert’s Towhee and the Cactus Wren.

We also saw many Costa’s hummingbirds, below. I recently posted an essay with more photos of this glorious bird.

Link: Costa’s Hummingbird by Jet Eliot.

The black-throated sparrow is a hardy and dapper desert dweller, also referred to as the desert sparrow.

And lastly, the vermilion flycatcher, Pyrocephalus obscurus, made a bright appearance one day a few weeks ago when we were in Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. We had just gotten out of the car and were gearing up. With binoculars, I scanned the cottonwoods in the parking lot and was thrilled to see this bright red bird.

They do not winter in the desert. We learned from a local birder that this individual had just arrived that day.

I am always amazed at creatures who can live in the extreme desert temperatures. Thanks for joining me to celebrate these desert dwellers today.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

A Snowy Day in Joshua Tree

This was our second visit to Joshua Tree National Park, the previous one was for a half-day 12 years ago.

This park has a sacredness to it, and I felt it the first time, which is why we were back again.

But this second visit was really special, not only because I have matured over the years and was willing to move slower and listen more carefully to the rocks, trees, and plants around me, but because on our third and final day we were blanketed for six hours in fresh-fallen snow.

Snow doesn’t come often to southern California. We’ve had crazy weather the past two months in California.

The park is in a sprawling desert with six mountain ranges. It was first declared a space worth preserving in 1936 and then more recently, in 1994, when an act of U.S. Congress brought more space and more protection.

It is so big that it encompasses two deserts: the Colorado and the Mojave.

Like much of California, Joshua Tree NP lies near tectonic plates that have been uplifting and moving mountains for millions of years.

More info: Joshua Tree National Park Wikipedia

The eastern side of the park, with elevations below 3,000′, is in the Colorado Desert. Low elevation plants grow here; and less snow was falling here.

And the other part, the Mohave Desert part, is higher in elevation (above 3,000′) and has a vast community of Joshua trees. Here the snow came down in big, wet flakes and never stopped for the entire day.

It kept falling, so silently, and covering the Joshua trees. Yucca brevifolia are not technically trees, they are succulents in the agave (Agavaceae) family.

The winds were strong, sometimes the snow was horizontal, but the “trees” never swayed, as if they were made for all this weather adversity. And they are. They have thrived through centuries of drought, and yet they also prefer occasional cold temperatures.

The snow was sticking and could be shaped. There were not many people out in this frigid weather, but I saw a little girl, about two or three years old–she was the only person I saw with a snowball. She had it gripped in her little hand and was gnawing on it with abandon.

We saw indistinct tracks in the snow from wildlife and a few hardy birds.

Athena, with her numerous cameras and lenses, was oblivious to the freezing temperatures and cutting wind, out there snapping away, recording the beauty.

Gradually, over the course of the day as the snow continued to fall, the desert transformed. The hard, brown, dry ground vanished; replaced by a carpet of fluffy whiteness.

The cacti all across the desert floor, normally foreboding with their millions of spikey spines, were rounding out with each hour of snow, turning into soft white blobs.

Most magical of all were the Joshua trees. Right before my eyes these other-worldly trees with one trunk and a dozen or so branches were turning into people-like figures, bodies with arms.

As the snow kept falling, shrouding their pointy leaves and rugged trunks, they became flexible dancers, reaching their arms out, meeting the fresh snow with grace and rhythm.

The rocky outcroppings, usually towering and unapproachable, softened too. The gaps and cracks in the rocks filled in with snow, reshaping and accenting their loveliest features.

Eventually the mountains and boulders disappeared in a white-out. The sky blackened and the storm intensified.

And just as we were exiting the park, the never-closed gates had to be closed, due to shifting snow and dangerous road conditions.

I suspect those Joshua trees kept on dancing–celebrating the endless open space, the cleansing wind and refreshing snow.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Costa’s Hummingbird

I have just returned from a week of vacation in southern California and wanted to share this hummingbird with you, another dazzler.

The Costa’s hummingbird is a common bird in southern California, as well as the southwest U.S. and northwest Mexico. It winters in western Mexico.

The back is emerald and there are a few white markings. But of course it is the male’s throat that glitters with brilliance.

We saw it often in the desert landscapes and urban gardens. This is a desert canyon, below, on the outskirts of Palm Springs where we saw over a dozen Costa’s hummingbirds.

What is unique about this hummingbird is its purple–deep rich purple–gorget or throat.

Many hummingbirds have red and pink and orange gorgets. And there are other purple hummingbirds, but the purple gorget (pronounced gor-jet) of this Costa’s is not something we see too often.

Sometimes the male’s gorget looks black, depending on the light.

The bird is small, as most hummingbirds are, at 3-3.5 inches long (7-9 cm).

They live year-round in southern California, and last week when we were there, the males were doing their impressive, acrobatic swoops and dives–their courtship displays. See range map at end.

A flash of royal purple as one hummingbird, and then another, zoomed from flowering plant to plant.


Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Costa’s Hummingbird Range, courtesy Wiki. Yellow=breeding, Green=year-round, Blue=winter.

Coyote gets a Gopher

We struck gold one day at Point Reyes recently, when we watched a coyote dramatically dig a gopher out of its hole.

At first the coyote was sniffing around in that canine way, randomly checking out his favorite spots in the grassy field. We were on a broad ridge, a windy ridge, with the Pacific Ocean to our left and Drakes Bay to the right.

He was quite far away, ambling closer.

It was mid-afternoon when the road is fairly busy, we couldn’t just stop and watch. Fortunately there was a pause in traffic, and I was able to stop the car and quickly pull over; the berm was flat and wide and not too soft. There was a large electronic traffic sign on the roadside we could park in front of without impeding traffic or attracting attention.

Other cars whizzed by while we watched the cool and silent drama unfold.

Athena captured these photos from the car’s open window.

We marveled at his lustrous coat, so thick. It was January and he had on his winter coat. Beautiful bushy tail.

It is a sad thing to see wild mammals who have suffered from drought, starvation or injury; visible ribs, wavering gait, ghostly countenance.

This wild mammal was robust and confident.

We had only been watching about five minutes when he found something–he stood tense and alert, engaged. His nose was, literally, to the ground.

Started digging.

He dug so feverishly that soon his front legs were deep inside the hole. Digging, relentless and urgent digging.

The coyote was very aware of us, but had more important things on his mind. We stayed in the car and let him be.

He continued to dig…and then it all stopped. We couldn’t see at first what he was crouched over.

He was bent over something. Then he came out of the hole and lifted his head, gnawed and chomped. We saw a limp, muddy lump between his jaws.

Got a gopher.

It was covered with mud, very black mud, must’ve been deep in the burrow.

Canis latrans are primarily carnivorous and have a wide diet; small, burrowing mammals are one of their common prey. He had probably injured the gopher, trapped it.

The whole event lasted about two minutes.

Native American folklore calls coyote “the trickster.”

And there was something to this, because out of nowhere, just after he finished his last bite, a second coyote appeared.

It was obvious the two of them knew each other, there was no strain, tension or posturing.

As they left us and walked off, our gopher warrior was easily recognizable: he kept licking his chops, reliving his tasty snack.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Early Spring Wonders

Our Northern California spring days have been a joy. Come join me for a morning walk. It’s a little chilly so button up.

It is in the low Fahrenheit 30s every morning (-1C) and by mid-day reaches about 55F (13C). The sunshine’s warmth opens up the buds a little bit more each day.

The early spring flowers, like narcissus paper whites and daffodils, are out now, adding an occasional heady scent to the path.

The flowering quince is in bloom, another early spring flowering delight.

Deciduous oaks and ornamental gingkos are still leafless, but they have promising buds. We walk along a creek where there are many willow trees. It is a glorious sight to see so many willow branches covered with cottony catkins…pussy willows.

Our early morning walks reveal frost on the grass and rooftops, but as we reach the third and final mile, the grass has already become dewy and a popular spot for robins.

American robins are often thought of as spring harbingers in American culture; but that does not ring true for those of us who live in mild climates. Robins live here in northern California throughout the winter. I have seen them in large flocks of 100 a few times, but usually it’s flocks of 25-30.

Almost every day I am now hearing western bluebirds, even very early when it is still frosty cold.

Reptiles and amphibians are waking up too. Sometimes on a very warm day a tiny western fence lizard will be sunning on a rock. Only the tiny ones are out right now, they have less body to charge up than the adult lizards. Adults are still hibernating underground.

The spring calls of occasional frogs and toads ribbiting around the creeks can also be heard.

Some of the birds are changing their repertoire, singing their spring songs.

The oak titmouse is changing voices from its scratchy winter call into melodious tunes of spring.

Listen below:

Winter Oak Titmouse call

Spring Oak Titmouse call

Lately not a day goes by without the red-shouldered hawks proclaiming propriety with their piercing calls.

Last week we spotted one of my favorite spring arrivals in the backyard: the Allen’s hummingbird. They spend their winters in central Mexico and are now returning here to Northern California to breed. So far I have only seen the males; the females will come soon. The Allen’s are creating quite a stir for the year-round resident Anna’s hummingbirds, and the fierce battles have begun.

We came upon this Anna’s hummingbird feasting on the flowers of a bolted vegetable plant.

It’s a little too early for the riot of spring flowers and dancing butterflies, but it is a marvelous time to take in the bounties of the new spring season.

Written by Jet Aliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Hawaiian Islands

Aloha! Let’s hop on a virtual plane and cruise to Hawaii for a tropical visit to a few major islands.

Hawaii has approximately 137 islands, many of which are very small. There are eight major islands and we’re going to frolic on the four most commonly visited ones.

We are 2,000 miles (3,200 km) west of the U.S. coast in an isolated spot in the Pacific Ocean.

The islands were formed from volcanoes on the ocean floor approximately 40-70 million years ago. Some of Hawaii’s volcanoes are dormant, while others continue to erupt.

The oldest islands are in the north and are smaller due to longer exposure to erosion. We’ll start in the north.

You can see the eight major islands in the map (above). Niihau, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe are primarily not open to tourists for various reasons.

Kauai, Oahu, Maui and the Big Island are where most residents live and tourists visit.

As a tourist who has visited Hawaii many times and always to enjoy the wildlife, the emphasis here will be on the world outdoors.


The oldest of the main islands, Kauai has had more time for soil and plants to reestablish on top of the lava eruptions. It is also one of the wettest places on earth. With steady rainfall, the waterfalls and lush forests offer rich vistas on Kauai.

Other stunningly beautiful sights on Kauai include the NaPali coast and Kilauea Point in the north.

There’s a tricky trail on the coast of NaPali that offers some of the most beautiful vistas I have ever seen, like this one, below.

Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge has a lighthouse and one of the largest populations of nesting seabirds in the state.

Here we have seen frigatebirds, albatross, shearwaters and more. This nene, below, was photographed from Kilauea Point, it is Hawaii’s state bird. I have participated in Nene counts for this beleaguered-but-reviving endemic species, the rarest goose in the world.


This island is home to the state’s capital, Honolulu, and is the busiest and most populated.

One day we went birding with my nephew and his son, Oahu residents, in Kapiolani Park at the base of Diamond Head. We were looking for a would-be lifer, the fairy tern, but to no avail.

Below are two photos of Diamond Head, a volcanic mountain that has not erupted in over 150,000 years. This first photo is from Kapiolani Park. The aerial shot below it shows Diamond Head’s crater.

The north side of Oahu is a world-famous surfing hotspot…

…and is less urbanized with good habitat for birds, including this common moorhen and Hawaiian stilts.

The beauty of every Hawaiian Island is the mountains that dominate the landscape. All are made from volcanoes, and volcanic activity is different on every island. This is what makes each island unique.


Maui was formed by two volcanoes that now overlap each other into one island. The younger of the two volcanoes is on the eastern side, called Haleakala.

There is a visitor center at the top, yielding these incredible views of the volcanic mountain and crater.

Not far from the summit we have had the fortune of finding endemic honeycreepers several times. Honeycreepers are nectar-feeding birds native only to Hawaii, many of them have become extinct over the years. We spotted this Amikihi in Hosmer’s Grove. (Hawaii has no hummingbirds.)

As it is with all these main Hawaiian Islands, the top of the mountain is typically more undeveloped and has native flora and fauna, whereas the base of the mountain has more human development and introduced plants and wildlife.

Warmer weather, beaches and access to supplies is understandably the human draw at the mountain bases.

Which side of the island you are on, leeward or windward, is also a factor for development due to weather.

So many times I have spent the day on the mountain’s top, bundled up, sometimes soaking wet, as we went birding and hiking and exploring. Then we would drive back down to our condo where everyone is in bathing suits, relaxed and sipping on a drink in the midst of fragrant tropical trees.

So we also spend time snorkeling and swimming in bays and coves. I have had the honor of snorkeling in this cove, below, several times.

The Big Island.

Also known as the island of Hawaii, it is the largest and youngest island in the chain. Being the youngest island, it still has volcanic eruptions.

The Big Island is my favorite. I like it because it is bigger and less congested and very interesting. I find the lava formations fascinating and love the unique landscapes that resemble moonscapes. I have seen the most birds and wildlife on this island, too, native and otherwise.

This photo below shows an expansive vista of lava landscapes on the Big Island’s Saddle Road. After an eruption has cooled down, years later, plant life takes root. Here there are plants, but it is mostly lava. The landscape varies depending on where the lava has spewed and hardened, and how many years it has been.

Volcanoes National Park is a must-see for us on the Big Island due to numerous hiking and birding opportunities.

Volcanoes National Park, National Park Service website

This is an active lava flow spitting fire and smoke, below, taken from a very far and safe distance. Kilauea Volcano.

On the other side of the Big Island, this is one of my favorite snorkeling spots near the Place of Refuge on the south Kona coast. The “beach” is all hardened, black lava. It’s not a place for laying out, but under the water are a variety of coral and fish, spinner dolphins and green sea turtles.

As we reluctantly head back to Kona International Airport, we still have a little time to check out this marina formed with black lava and showing Mauna Loa (volcano) in the sky’s horizon.

Thanks for joining me on this Hawaiian Island tour…or as they say in Hawaii: Mahalo.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

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.

A Walk in the Rainforest

If you’ve always wanted to walk through a rainforest but didn’t want to deal with the bugs and humidity, here’s your chance. We’re in a Belize rainforest today.

Surprisingly, over half of Belize is forest. The rainforest in Belize is called the Selva Maya forest and is an ongoing collaboration of organizations dedicated to conserving it.

More info Nature Conservancy Belize Rainforest

More info Wikipedia Belize

Let’s go for our walk.

With vines hanging down and roots coming up out of the trail, we have to look down quite a bit, watch your step. It would be nice to stroll through and look around, but it’s best not to do both at the same time.

The ground is alive with insects. All you have to do is accidentally step once into an army of ants, and you don’t forget to look where you’re stepping ever again.

The forest floor is one of the most distinctive features of a rainforest. Fallen bark and limbs, downed trees, leaves and flowers. Combine all the fallen flora with warmth, humidity and rain and this makes for a constantly decaying environment. Many forms of fungus accelerate the decay.

The pungent smell of decay is unmistakable: earthy, moldy and mildewy.

Beneath the forest floor is a vast universe of ants. Ant societies are underground, flourishing in the steady and constant pursuit of expanding their colony. While the queen is producing eggs continuously, worker ants are busy feeding larvae, foraging, and cleaning and defending the nest.

This is a colony of leafcutter ants.

You cannot see the ants because they are carrying bits of leaves far bigger than their bodies. They have cut the leaves from a plant and are delivering them to the nest.

This is a bullet ant, below, named for its extremely painful sting.

Because ants are such a big part of the rainforest, it follows there are many species of birds that eat ants. There are more than 250 species of antbirds in subtropical and tropical South and Central America. They have names like antthrush, antpitta, antshrike and antwren.

Antbirds forage on the ants, so when we come to a mixed flock of antbirds hopping around the ground and tree trunks, it is an indication there is a moving train of ants charging along the forest floor.

Many ant-following birds do not have the word “ant” in their name. This one, below, is a ruddy woodcreeper. Their legs and feet are adapted to gripping vertical stems and tree trunks. They are always creeping up and down the wood of the trunk, thus their name.

Another thing about the rainforest: it is always dark. Thick tree canopies prevent the sun from penetrating through. This adds a challenge to birding and especially photography–a flash extender is a must.

Here is a bird who is nesting on the forest floor. The common pauraque is a nightjar species, and nocturnal.

If you look closely at the photo below you can see there is an extra eye under the parent bird. It is a chick on the nest, protected by the mother.

Moving up off the floor is the forest’s understory where birds, snakes, amphibians, lizards and mammals reside.

We came upon this Baird’s Tapir on a night drive. They are the largest native herbivore in the New World tropics, with adults weighing 330-660 pounds (150-300 kg). Tapirus bairdii is rare and endangered, and the Belize national animal.

Post I wrote on the Baird’s Tapir

One day we came upon this small creek. They were still a few months away from the rainy season, so the water was low; and it was late in the day so it was quiet. But we knew if we waited, something would come along.

And voila–a beauty arrived.

The red-capped manakin. Ceratopipra mentalis. A male with his orange beacon head and yellow pantaloon legs, he will no doubt give a commanding performance of his entertaining courtship dance during mating season. They are usually very difficult to spot because they primarily eat fruit and are hidden in leaves, but that day we were lucky he was thirsty.

This red-legged honeycreeper, below, is a nectar-feeder in the tanager family. Cyanerpes cyaneus is about twice the size of a hummingbird.

One day we were on a different trail, a narrow path close to water when we were surprised to come around the corner and be face-to-face with this unique heron. Cochlearius cochlearius.

Although I love all the lizards of the rainforests–so nimble and prehistoric-looking–my favorite is the basilisk with its curious features and amazing ability to skid across the water’s surface.

This individual was living near our bungalow and often came to greet us after a long day in the field. It lived in the darkness underneath this wood perch.

Sometimes there’s a patch of sun shining through a gap in the canopy and photography is a little better.

Light helps with distinguishing the camouflaged wildlife, too.

It might take your eyes a minute to see that there are two large parrots in the middle of this photo, below. Look closely at the center horizontal branch. Red-lored parrots — Amazona autumnalis.

The Belize national bird, the keel-billed toucan, takes the prize for an unusual bird. Ramphastos sulfuratus. A large bird and much easier to spot than the parrots above, but always so very high up in the canopy.

The bill looks heavy and unwieldy, but when you watch the toucan deftly eating berries in a tree, you see the bill is its best tool. It is very light, made of keratin.

Often when there are monkeys in the canopy, you will know it. They are either vocalizing with loud chatter or howls, or tree limbs are bouncing and leaves are scattering.

Way high up we were alerted to a mother and her infant.

You can see how splayed out the four limbs and tail are on this monkey (above), giving it a spider look and hence its name: spider monkey. This photo demonstrates how the adult is utilizing her prehensile tail. (The tail is the upper far right appendage and is wrapped around the limb.)

It is a marvel to watch them glide effortlessly and acrobatically from one tree to the next.

Also up in the canopies of many rainforests in Belize are the howler monkeys. This big guy watched us quietly and passively, but often their howling can send shivers down your spine on a dark night.

We are lucky to have rainforests on our planet and it has not been without a struggle, despite the benefit they offer to climate change.

Yes, the rainforest is moldy, dark and teeming with biting insects. But it is also filled with toucans, parrots and hundreds of colorful bird species, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. A tropical party that never ends.

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.