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.

Spooky Nights

No tricks this Halloween, but I do have a treat for you. I’ll take you on some spooky night walks here, and you won’t get hurt because it’s only photographs.

You are perfectly safe, for example, from this hyena.

Going into the wilderness at night is a great way to see the nocturnal creatures. They come out of their holes and caves and hiding places, and start their evening hunt. It can, however, be a bit unsettling for humans.

Darkness adds to the fright factor, of course. When it’s completely dark and you can see nothing but beady eyes in the grass, it can put you on edge. Those bright eyes could be a harmless night bird…

or a pair of leopards hungrily searching for dinner.

When I first saw this creature (below) in Australia, I gasped, thinking it was a very large rat.

It is a bandicoot, in the marsupial family, and not Rodentia at all. They are nocturnal omnivores.

Whether you’re in a rainforest or on the open plains, if it is dark, the night sounds can be bone-chilling. High-pitched screeching, deep howls and roars are hair-raising.

Hyenas, with their maniacal whoops and growls and laughs, are the opposite of a lullaby.

But worse: the feel of a bat’s wings fluttering inches from the face. It’s happened to me twice.

Bats have excellent echolocation skills, and are not hampered by their poor eyesight. Both times I was outdoors in a very dark place and a bat came so close I could feel and hear the whir of its wings. Both times I had a similar reaction: I was momentarily vexed, then thrilled.

The truth is, I love bats. I like all these animals I have mentioned. They’re all a part of this incredible earth, and even when there’s a moment of fright, it passes quickly.

I find it a privilege to be in the presence of an owl; but they, too, can have some tricks up their winged sleeves.

Owls have specialized feathers and are truly silent in their flight. There have been times when I heard an owl hoot on one side of me, and then suddenly I heard the bird on my other side. It soundlessly and invisibly flew right past me.

While owls are relatively quiet, here’s an owl that can have an alarming screech.

While barn owls shriek, there is another bird I’ve heard that not only shrieks, it also squeals like a pig.

The oilbird.

Enter a dark cave in a rainforest where oilbirds live, and this is what you’ll hear: press this link for a live recording.

Post I wrote Oilbirds in Trinidad

Even if it’s not nighttime, a forest is naturally dark due to the heavy tree canopy.

This big vulture gave me a start. I think I heard him shout, “Boo!”

And then there’s the Amazon, the rainforest of all rainforests. Camping there was a sleepless event, a place where daylight could not come fast enough.

I’ve had a rat come tumbling through the thatched roof into our hut, cockroaches as big as a chapstick scampering around my toothbrush, and howling monkeys that sounded like a Category 5 hurricane. All in the dark.

Big ol’ spiders in the Amazon too.

Even the trees in rainforests are threatening. Look at the thorns on this tree trunk!

They evolve with thorns for protection, which makes sense, but it doesn’t help if you are trying to steady yourself in deep mud.

So when the sun finally arrives, it is usually a relief. Because everything looks better in the daytime.

Except, maybe, for this marine iguana. Day or night, it has a look that will freeze you in place.

So there you go, my friends. A lot of spooky nights for you this Halloween, with none of the heart-thumping frights and gasps. Always remember, daylight is just around the corner.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless noted.

Building Machu Picchu

Built for Inca royalty around 1450 A.D., Machu Picchu is a grand complex in the Andes mountains of Peru. It was occupied for 80 years, then for hundreds of years lay dormant. Here is a brief look at the ingenuity behind the building of Machu Picchu.

The citadel was an extensive complex with approximately 200 buildings, and housed about 750 people. It covered 80,000 acres (82,500 hectares).

It was roughly divided into an urban sector and an agricultural sector; with a variety of buildings including the royal palace and tomb, residential quarters, religious temples, the cemetery, prison area, and more.

In addition to the 200 buildings, Inca engineers also designed elaborate farming terraces and sophisticated canal irrigation systems. Water was guided through aqueducts into the citadel for use in agriculture and bathing. Pictured below is an indoor water feature with water that still flows.

This photo below of the Royal Tomb highlights the fine workmanship in the granite.

At the time, the buildings were constructed with thatched roofs. The thatching is long gone now, but there are a few buildings where officials revived the thatched roofs to demonstrate what it looked like.

The architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is still admired today. Design incorporated the surrounding topography. With light and its resulting shadows, some designs mimicked the mountain peaks precisely.

This scene shows the parallels between the stone buildings and the mountains.

Building materials also incorporated the surroundings. They used the existing rock, primarily granite, in two basic ways: by chiseling the granite bedrock of the mountain ridge; and cutting granite from nearby quarries, transporting it to the site.

To transport the granite, builders cut it into blocks using nothing more than hard stones and bronze tools. Then hundreds of men, using ropes, logs, poles, levers and ramps, pushed it up the mountain.

Some blocks weighed more than 40 tons.

Amazing Feats #1 and #2: cutting hard granite with stone and bronze tools; and pushing 45-ton granite blocks up a steep mountain.

Elevation at Machu Picchu is 7,970 feet (2,430m). You can see here how steep the mountain is.

Amazing Feat #3, the one I never stopped examining as I stood among the rocks and walls of Machu Picchu: the way the stones fit together.

Once the blocks were pushed up the mountain and into place, builders fine-tuned the blocks until they were perfectly interlocking…so tightly and impeccably fitted that they used no mortar.

This technique, called ashlar masonry, was painstakingly practiced in the most sacred Inca sites.

In the 500+ years since its original construction, the buildings still remain standing, even in this earthquake-prone area.

Below are two of Machu Picchu’s celebrated structures. The first one is the Temple of the Sun, or Torreon, where they worshipped the sun, planets and Inca constellations.

Notice the trapezoidal-shaped windows. This design is prevalent throughout the citadel.

The second structure, below, titled Intihuatana, is what is believed to be an astronomic clock or calendar. It is a ritual stone arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. Inti was their sun god.

More information:

Machu Picchu Wikipedia

Inca Architecture Wikipedia

Just like the Inca empire, the Machu Picchu citadel was eventually lost to history. The Spanish conquistadors never found it, the reason it was still intact in 1911 when Hiram Bingham, an American lecturer and explorer, discovered it while on an expedition in search of a different site. (Although he was not the first to find it, he was considered the scientific discoverer.)

Beautiful Machu Picchu had been hidden under thick vegetation for hundreds of years.

During my two visits to Machu Picchu, occasionally a grazing llama ambled by, and a particularly enchanting sparrow sang, sealing in the natural beauty and rich history of this remarkable place.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Tropical Delights

Sometimes it is interesting to see some of our most common foods in their pre-processed earth-growing forms. Here is a fun look at a few of the food delights I have seen while birding in tropical countries.

The food plant I have seen the most in my tropical birding travels: bananas.

Genus Musa. Bananas grow in a wide variety of soils and are harvested in 135 countries.

The largest herbaceous plant, a banana plant is typically about 16 feet (5m) tall. There is a large pink flower or inflorescence that emerges from the plant where the bananas grow.

Although I would never venture into plantations on my own, local bird guides, familiar with surroundings and people, often take Athena and I into the fields.

In the Amazon, our guide led us through this banana plantation, below, as we headed for a bird blind. We were on a mission to spot macaws at the river bank. We took a shortcut through rows of these bananas. They are the most common cultivar, the Cavendish, the species most of us buy from the grocery store.

Lucky for us, we found the macaws too.

Interestingly, a few days after our macaw experience, our motorized canoe passed by these bananas being transported on their way to market.

This euphonia bird, in Belize, is eating the banana seeds he successfully wrangled out of the banana.

While the banana is one of the most recognizable food items in the world, there are few people who would ever know that these red pods are what chocolate is made from.

Years earlier, while birding in Belize, we first saw yellow pods hanging in the trees. In a flash, our guide Glen had kicked off his shoes, climbed a tree, and brought down a yellow pod. None of us knew what it was.

It is a cocoa pod. They come in various colors, depending on the species and maturity.

As Glen opened the pod, he enthusiastically explained he had done this frequently as a kid. It was impressive how quickly and deftly he climbed up that tree.

Making chocolate starts with the pod. They are cut from the tree with a machete, and the beans are extracted from the pod. There are 30-50 beans in each pod. The beans go through an elaborate process of fermentation, drying, roasting and more.

We tasted the beans, but it was nothing like chocolate. In fact, for one like me who is a chocolate lover, I chose to forget the taste.

Coffee, like chocolate, also goes through a lot of processing.

It starts in the field with a worker, like this Mexican man with his basket and machete. We were in this plantation marveling at parrotlets, soon after dawn, when he came through to start his work day.

Shade-grown crops, like this coffee plantation (below) in Belize, are an environmentally sound way to grow crops. You can see there are tall trees in the same land parcel as the short coffee plants. This way the coffee can grow without obliterating the surrounding forest.

These toucans, in this field, were happy about that.

This is one of the coffee plants up close. You can see the coffee berries in clumps in the center.

Between exporting and explorers, there have been many centuries of trading and transporting exotic foods. In tropical islands like Hawaii, we see many unique foods that originated in Southeast Asia like star fruit and rambutan.

While birding in a historic churchyard on the Big Island of Hawaii, we came across these star fruit.

When you cut a cross section of the fruit, the pieces are star-shaped.

Rambutans, too, are a plant that originated in Southeast Asia but also grows well in Hawaii.

Friendly surfers on a Kauai roadside sold us tasty rambutans.

It is a red tropical fruit with soft, hair-like spikes, seen in the center of the plate below. Easy to find all over Hawaii.

Pineapples and papayas are also easy to find all over Hawaii, both originally from the Americas.

This gecko is waiting for the day when the papayas will be ripe.

We are lucky in my home state of California where conditions provide a rich variety of crops. But I will have to cover that another time.

Whether you’re traveling or birding or simply cruising your own back roads, there are often crops or plants around us providing food to humans or other earth-dwelling inhabitants.

Cheers to a marvelous planet on which we live, providing sunshine, soil, rain and oxygen.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Birds of the Rainbow

There are many scientific discussions about the brightly colored birds on our planet. But instead of getting bogged down with melanin, refraction, and mating theories, let’s just look and admire today.

This is a day to relax into the rainbow.

We will start with the first color of the rainbow: red. The summer tanager and vermillion flycatcher, both found in North America and elsewhere, begin the rainbow with a hot start.

Shades of red vary in the avian world, these two birds are red-orange.

Pink birds, a variation of red, are not seen as commonly.

Next on the spectrum, orange in birds is often paired with brown. But this azure kingfisher sports a very bright orange breast and legs (and dazzling azure head and back).

This orange and black grosbeak breeds in our backyard every summer. The male’s colors flash conspicuously as he flies.

Since many forests have green leaves that turn to yellow, yellow birds can be found in many places.

Green is a color often seen in parrot species.

This violet-green swallow, a bird who nests in our nest boxes, swoops through the air showing off his elegant emerald finery.

Blue and indigo are both colors of the rainbow, and in birds there are numerous shades of blue.

This so-called green honeycreeper appears more turquoise.

While this turquois jay is adorned with several shades of blue.

The greater blue-eared glossy starling provides a blue spectacle all its own.

The aptly-named resplendent quetzal gets my vote for the most beautiful bird on the planet. The blue-green shades shimmer in the light, and the long streamer tail floating behind the bird stops you in your tracks.

We traveled to a very remote village in a Central American cloud forest to see this bird. We met our guide at 5 a.m. and he took us to the wild avocado trees where the quetzals eat. At one point there was actually a traffic jam in the forest because truck drivers, potato farmers and anyone passing by abandoned their vehicles to join our admiration club.

The peacock, a native of India with a long swag of green and blue, is incredibly eye-catching with a tail full of eyes.

Violet birds. The Costa’s hummingbird looks black in some light. But its throat and head vibrantly come alive with iridescent purple in the right light.

And this purple honeycreeper is so garishly purple it is difficult to look anywhere else.

Although the lilac-breasted roller has a lilac-colored breast, the bird showcases a rainbow kaleidoscope, especially when the bird spins through the air.

This leads us to a few sensational birds who grace the world with all the colors of the rainbow.

The rainbow bee-eater, a marvel to behold.

The painted bunting effortlessly showcases all the colors on the artist’s palette.

And lastly, the remarkable rainbow lorikeet, boasting the colors of the rainbow like no other bird on this planet.

Birders and photographers know well the game of light when it comes to the outdoors. If a brightly colored subject isn’t in good light, the color doesn’t stand out.

But there are those marvelous days when the light is just right: a day to celebrate the colors of the rainbow and all the glory on this planet.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

A Dozen Birds You’ve Never Heard Of

Whether we are familiar with just our local birds, or more, few people know ALL the birds. With more than 10,000 different bird species in the world, there are bound to be some that even the birdiest humans have not heard of. Have fun with this list of a dozen–see if there is even one you know.

1. Water Dikkop.

In the Okavango Delta of Botswana lives this long-legged bird in the thick-knee family. Burhinus vermiculatus, also known as a water thick-knee, is about 15-16 inches (38-41 cm) tall. They are found near water in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and as you can see, it does have thick knees, for which it is named.

2. Paradise Riflebird.

This handsome bird only exists in rainforests of eastern Australia. Lophorina paradisea is in the same family as the show-stopping Birds of Paradise. The male performs an elaborate display in breeding season. (See photo at end, of this bird displaying.) They are about the size of a small falcon. The name “riflebird” refers to the male’s plumage that is iridescent black-green in certain light, resembling the uniform of the British Army Rifle Brigade.

3. Yellow-winged Cacique.

Found primarily in the tropical lowlands of west Mexico, Cassiculus melanicterus is a large, bold, and loud bird; reminiscent of a jay in personality but not at all related. They have a floppy crest which you see on each side of the head here. Pronounced “ka-seek.”

4. Violaceous Euphonia.

A Neotropical songbird in the finch family, Euphonia violacea is such a stunning bird that it is featured on a Trinidad/Tobago postage stamp. They are found in several parts of South America and Trinidad/Tobago. The word “euphonia” is of Greek origin and translates to “sweet-voiced.” (There’s a second Euphonia species at the end.)

5. Red-billed Francolin.

Pternistis adspersus is found in a few countries in South Africa, and is also known as the red-billed spurfowl for the spur on its heel. In the same family as the partridge and pheasant, and resembling quail, they are denizens of the grass where they eat insects, vegetable matter, and seeds.

6. Snowcap.

Found in several Central American countries, the snowcap is in the hummingbird family. Microchera albocoronata is one of the smallest hummingbirds. We enjoyed a sighting of this unusual hummingbird, obviously named for his snowy white cap, on a Costa Rican mountain slope. There are about 360 species of hummingbirds–so many that they can’t all be named hummingbirds. All found in the Americas, hummingbirds have many different names like coronet, hermit, and woodstar.

Break Time.

At this point we have covered half of the dozen birds. If you have never heard of one of them, how wonderful for you to now have learned six new birds on our planet. If you are familiar with several, that’s equally as wonderful. Let’s celebrate with this bird we’ve all heard of. They inhabit every continent except Antarctica: the wise old owl.

7. Coppery-tailed Coucal.

There are about 30 species of coucals, a large Old World bird in the cuckoo family. Centropus cupreicaudus is named for it’s reddish-brown tail, but that dazzling red eye is also noteworthy. Derivation of “coucal” comes from the spurs or claws that many coucal species have.

8. Capped Wheatear.

This is a passerine, or songbird, that we found in Zambia. I never forget this name because I could be named the same. The name “wheatear” translates from “white arse,” which you can see in this photo below. They are primarily Old World birds, but a species or two have established in Canada and Greenland. Oenanthe pileata graces the grasslands with its melodic warbling sound, where it feeds mostly on ants.

9. Red-capped Manakin.

Manakins are entertaining birds for the mating dances the male performs in breeding–one of my favorite species. They buzz and snap their wings and perform spectacular lekking courtship rituals. There are 54 species, all found in the American tropics. We have witnessed 6 or 8 male manakins lekking, but they zip past like a bullet and are nearly impossible to photograph. We were thrilled to find this solo Ceratopipra mentalis quietly drinking and bathing in a creek deep in the rainforest of Belize. The name is from Middle Dutch mannekijn “little man.”

10. Collared Pratincole.

Pratincoles are found in the Old World where they are in the wader (aka shorebird) suborder. With short legs and pointed wings, they can catch insects on the fly, like swallows–an unusual trick for a shorebird. We found this Glareola pratincola in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, Africa. The name “pratincole” comes from the Latin words prātum meadow and incola resident, although they are more water resident than meadow.

11. Black-crowned Tityra.

A medium-sized songbird, titiyras can be found in parts of Mexico, Central America, South America and Trinidad. They feed on fruit and insects, and often lay their eggs in woodpecker nests, so you almost always see them in trees. We spotted this Tityra inquisitor in Costa Rica, but they are common in many Central and South American countries.

12. Spangled Drongo.

Drongos are also a songbird species, found in the Old World tropics. They are named for their forked tails: from Greek dikros “forked” and oura “tail.” Some drongos have elaborate tail decorations, like the Dicrurus bracteatus photographed here. There is only one drongo species in Australia, so we were lucky to find this showy bird with its bright red eyes and decorative markings, singing a complex call in the rainforest.

However many names you recognized, the good news is there’s at least 10,000 more, so striving to know them all will keep us busy for a lifetime. If you previously knew none of them, you’ve learned a lot today.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Wild Parrots

There are approximately 398 species of parrots in the world. They live primarily in tropical and subtropical countries. Let’s immerse ourselves in this wonderfully garish and charismatic bird.

Parrots are classified under the Order Psittaciformes and this includes cockatoos, lorikeets, parakeets, macaws and of course parrots. All birds featured here are wild parrots (photographed pre-Covid).

When you spot a wild parrot, the first surprise is its stunningly bright colors. The bird’s color palette is in full swing–blues, reds, yellows, oranges and lime greens.

But even with their splashy colors, they’re not always as conspicuous as you might think.

This mealy parrot blends in perfectly with the trees.

We spotted this yellow-naped parrot (Amazona auropalliata) from aboard a small boat on a river. You can see how much this green and yellow parrot blends into the background.

Focusing further, you see that a parrot’s bill is magnificent. It is not fused to the skull, allowing it to move independently and also contributing to tremendous biting pressure. A large macaw, like this one below, has the same bite force as a large dog.

The strong bill and jaw helps parrots to crack open hard nuts; their dexterous tongues work out the seeds.

With eyes positioned high on the skull, a parrot can see over and even behind its head.

Even their feet are impressive. Their zygodactyl toes (two toes face forward, two toes face backward) give them dexterity similar to a human’s hand. You can see how this cockatoo, about the size of a small puppy, can effortlessly balance on flimsy branches.

Wikipedia Parrot

Their intelligence is extraordinary. As a highly social creature, they converse frequently among themselves and develop distinct local dialects. They use their local dialects to distinguish familiar members of the flock, and ostracize the unfamiliar members.

You always know when parrots are nearby for the loud squawking you hear among their flocks. They can also be trained to imitate human speech and other sounds.

Unfortunately, their intelligence and beauty have made them attractive as pets for humans, leading to much trouble for parrots. Illegal trapping of wild parrots for the pet trade has led to near-extinction of many parrot species. Pet birds should always be purchased from a reputable source.

Wikipedia International Parrot Trade

Macaws are parrots found only in the New World. We trekked to a macaw lick one dawn morning in Peru, to watch these red-and-green macaws.

They extract and eat minerals out of the clay river bank to neutralize natural toxins they have ingested. Post I wrote about it: The Macaw Lick.

Of the 350+ parrot species in the world, 56 can be found in Australia. If you are looking to see parrots in the wild, this continent is a joy for spotting parrots.

Eucalyptus trees (aka “gum trees” to Australians) and other flowering trees supply the diet for many parrot species.

Cockatoos, one of the largest parrots, can be seen in Australia’s urban and rural settings.

We came upon this large cockatoo flock foraging in the fields.

A bold and kaleidoscopic bird that can talk, fly, climb, bite like a dog and see behind its head. That’s a talented bird.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Parrot range.png
Range Map: Parrots. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Markets Around the World

In the spirit of the holidays during a stay-at-home pandemic, please join me for a magic carpet ride around the world visiting a few lively outdoor markets.

We’ll start in North America and Mexico, cruise over Europe, look in on Australia, and end our magical adventure in South America. (Pre-pandemic photos.)

Outdoor markets are a good opportunity to observe the locals and their livelihoods; and purchase tasty treats and souvenirs directly from the source.

First up: Santa Fe, New Mexico. The local artisan market is located at the Palace of the Governors, an adobe structure built in 1610. Exquisite turquoise and silver jewelry are the specialty sold here.

I bought a pair of earrings from this jewelry artist in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Her busy hands quietly worked the fine details of her craft as she tended her table.

Urban markets, in their bustling atmosphere, showcase locally grown specialties and cater to big crowds.

Here are two popular California Bay Area markets.

Local produce is in abundance, usually harvested that morning or the night before and bursting with freshness.

Each market locale has its home-grown specialties.

Salmon, cherries and apples highlight the Seattle markets. Pike Place Market opened in 1907 and remains a popular and fun tourist attraction.

This Ballard neighborhood market (below) was a joy. We pitted five pounds of cherries with our friend after we left here, made jam.

Watermelon in Mexico…

… and grapes in wine country.

The celebration of outdoor markets at Christmastime requires mentioning the Christmas Markets in Germany and Austria. Classic holiday markets featuring sparkling light displays, outdoor stalls, traditional foods and beverages. Although I have not been to these markets, several friends have brought them alive for me.

Before we cross the Equator, I have to check on the magic carpet’s fuel level. It’s a good time to take a few minutes to click into the famous markets in Vienna…the first of which was held in 1298.

My friend and fellow blogger Mike Powell has dazzling photos from his visit last year: Vienna Christmas Market and Vienna Christmas Lights.

The magic carpet is in good shape, so we’ll glide on over to Australia to The Rocks Market in Sydney. I have spent many hours here buying souvenirs, but one of the most memorable items was quickly eaten up: a giant garlicky meatball.

I like all the markets–busy with people in their life’s work, live music and savory aromas.

But it is the remote village markets that are my favorite. Foreign lifestyles, rural and non-commercial, sometimes a foreign language barrier, yet still universally human and earthly.

We came across this busy African market in Arusha, Tanzania.

In Kenya we arrived by motorboat to this village island market in Lake Baringo, Kenya.

Across the globe in the shadow of Peru’s towering Andes Mountains, various crops like potatoes, corn and grains are terrace-farmed and sold.

All the big, lumpy bags in this village’s market are filled with potatoes.

While in the Amazon valley, we spotted these just-picked bananas being brought down the Madre de Dios River to be driven to market.

Traditional textiles of Peru date back over 10,000 years and remain an attraction for quality craftsmanship and fine alpaca wools. We found many markets selling woven tapestries and clothing throughout the Cuzco region.

I bought this purple sweater from this weaver.

I hope this magic carpet ride revived a few of your memories of markets or farmers or good times. I extend my warmest wishes for sweet moments in your holidays.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Mangrove Magic

As the effects of climate change continue to unfold, mangrove trees have become Earth’s heroes. Not only are they environmentally beneficial, they provide us with hours of fun observing life in the mud and roots.

Found in tropical and sub-tropical tidal ecosystems, mangrove trees have long, woody roots that live and proliferate in salt water.

In earlier centuries, mangroves were often removed to develop coastal land, but fortunately that is changing. As people discover the benefits of mangroves, there has been a steady increase in many countries to restore them.

In addition to providing a habitat for wildlife, these trees and shrubs have been found to filter sediments and reduce erosion. The list of environmental benefits is long.

More importantly, especially now as coastal storms increase, mangrove roots protect against the brunt of wave action during storms and cyclones; and are carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

A NASA study declared mangrove forests to be “among the planet’s best carbon scrubbers.”

More info: Wikipedia Mangrove

Belize, a small country on the northeastern Central American coast, has been a world leader in revitalizing mangrove habitat.

This agami heron in Belize’s mangroves is happy about that.

Significant mangrove swamps, or mangal, occur in parts of Mexico, one being the San Blas habitat, where this white ibis was photographed.

Other mangrove forests in the New World include South and Central America.

On a boat trip to see scarlet ibis in Trinidad, we cruised through this mangrove swamp.

I got a little nervous when I spotted coiled boa snakes in the mangroves above us, but the guide simply shrugged.

In the U.S., mangroves grow along the coast of Florida, primarily in the south, and the Key West islands. Louisiana and South Texas also have mangrove forests.

We came upon this flock of mixed waders under a mangrove in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, in southwest Florida. Here they have three species of mangrove: red, white, and black. Notice the mangrove roots beneath the leaves on the right side.

Floating in an inflatable zodiac boat in the Galapagos Islands, we found this trio of penguins peering out from under the mangroves.

In the eastern hemisphere there are even more mangrove forests, in Southeast Asia and many other countries (map at end). Indonesia has over 9 million hectares of mangrove forests. India boasts 46 mangrove species, representing about 57% of the world’s mangrove species.

Australia also has an extensive ecosystem of mangroves and salt marshes. In recent years Australia has suffered mangrove habitat loss, and many research projects are now devoted to uncovering the reason and protecting the habitat.

This mangrove wetland in Kakadu National Park in northern Australia includes ducks and other waders…

and the ubiquitous crocodiles.

I especially liked watching the jacanas, because their feet distribute their weight to effortlessly walk atop lily pads. This photo highlights the bird’s long right toe digits.

We found many of these large-leafed lilies in the mangrove swamps of Kakadu.

Even in the bustling Australian city of Cairns, the fifth largest city in Queensland, there were miles of coastal mangroves and mudflats. While other people were frolicking in the swimming area or relaxed on a bench under a palm, Athena and I were absolutely enthralled with all the mud creatures in the mangroves. Crabs, fish, mudskippers and more.

This spoonbill was busy catching fish in its large spatulate bill.

Ahhh, mangroves. They thrive in salt water, soak up carbon dioxide, soften the blow of a tropical storm, and stabilize the coast. And on top of all that, they provide food and protection for numerous wildlife all over the world. No wonder I love to cruise through these swamps.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Mangrove Distribution. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The Macaw Lick

Boarding the boats, Manu Nat’l. Park, Madre de Dios River, Peru

Peru Village on Madre de Dios Tributary of Amazon. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

Our wildlife-seeking travel group had piled into motorized canoes and spent the next week on the Madre de Dios River, an Amazon tributary, exploring Manu National Park. The hike to the macaw lick was to be one of the highlights, and it was.

 

Found only in the New World, macaws are some of the biggest parrots on earth.

Scarlet Macaws, Manu Nat’l Park, Peru, South America.

Up to that point, we had been hearing them from our canoes, but they flew so high, they merely looked like ants way up there. The low, guttural squawk, however, made for easy identification.

Amazon river (near top) and jungle, aerial photo. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

In 1989 a research team began a macaw research project here. Big, bold and colorful, the birds had been diminishing for years, due to deforestation and illegal poaching for the pet trade.

 

The team chose an obscure section of riverbank for its natural mineral supplies that are important to the birds, and that’s where we were headed.

 

A macaw’s diet is primarily seeds, flowers, and fruits which have naturally-occurring toxins designed to protect the plant.  The minerals in the riverbank clay, at this site, have a neutralizing effect on the toxic alkaloids the macaws ingest.

 

The research team had built a blind across from the Blanquillo Clay Lick to study the macaws. They prepared palm trees to provide nesting habitat, studied nesting patterns, and over the years steadily increased the reproductive output.

 

The Macaw Society aka Tambopata Macaw Project 

 

To avoid disturbing the macaws, we left our campsite at dawn to arrive at the Macaw Lick ahead of the birds. We hiked the sloppy mud trail through a thick tangle of rainforest and moldy debris; walked through a small banana plantation, too. The Amazonian rainforest has lots of rain which means: mud, humidity, abundant wildlife, and a fast rate of decomposition.

Our bird group hiking to the Clay Lick. I’m in the center with blue backpack. Photo: Athena Alexander

This is the blind, below. You can see the clay riverbank in the back center (brown), stretching widely on each side of the blind, where the anticipated macaws were supposed to arrive if we were lucky.

The Blanquillo Macaw Lick blind, near Madre de Dios, Peru. Photo: Athena Alexander

We were told that once we were inside the blind, we would not be able to leave again until the birds had flown off. There was a toilet in there, and it had a door.

 

At first, for about an hour, there were no macaws. It was steamy and really hot inside this thatched hut, and biting mosquitoes were rampant. I kept myself distracted by studying whatever creatures came along. Those two empty chairs are where Athena and I sat.

Group inside the blind.

 

This beauty arrived, among many.

 

Julia Butterfly, Manu Nat’l Park, Peru

 

Then the thrill began. A few macaws flew in making a racquet, and landed in the palms. Cameras started clicking.

Red and Green Macaws on palm trees, Manu Nat’l. Park, Peru

Eventually more macaws gathered. They congregated in the palms, gregarious and animated.

 

Before long it was a cacophony of squawking and screeching, and a kaleidoscope of colorful macaws. They clung to vines and roots, and dug their strong bills into the clay soil.

Red and Green Macaws, Blanquillo Clay Lick, Manu Nat’l. Park, Peru

 

Red and Green Macaws

 

These blue-headed parrots also joined the party.

 

Blue-headed Parrots, Blanquillo Clay Lick. Photo: Bill Page

 

As the morning unfolded, the 100+ birds gradually began to move on, and eventually every bird had departed. They say the birds come every day, unless it’s raining.

 

A wonderful place in the river’s bend where birds can socialize and get their daily requirements, and humans can huddle on the sideline, bedazzled by this brilliant spectacle.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander and Bill Page, as noted.

Amazon Basin, Madre de Dios, Peru