Postcards from Kakadu

Here’s a park so big that it has four river systems. It is loaded with wildlife, some that eat humans. It dates back tens of thousands of years; and although it’s accessible, most people will never get here.

Kakadu National Park is a vast expanse in the northern tip of the Northern Territory of Australia. It covers 7,646 square miles (19,804 sq. km) and holds the double distinctions of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a Ramsar Wetland.

There are two basic seasons in Kakadu: dry and wet. Like many wilderness areas in the world, the dry season in Kakadu means the water sources have shrunken, which brings the wildlife closer to the water and more available for observing. The wet season brings monsoons and flooding.

More info about Kakadu: Wikipedia and Parks Australia

We were there in the dry season, in September of 2010. As birders we stayed focused on the wetlands, foregoing the waterfalls and other land features spanning this enormous park.

Due to the extremes in temperatures and conditions, accommodations and human establishments were few. We stayed at the only lodge in the park to be closer to the wildlife.

Every day by noon the thermometer hovered around 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 C.), so we did most of our exploring in the very early morning and late in the day.

Probably our favorite activity was the Yellow Water Boat cruises, cruising in a pontoon boat through the wetlands. We had safe and close-up views of saltwater crocodiles and wetland birds.

The largest living reptile on earth, saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) also have the greatest bite pressure measured in any living animal. Salties, as the Australians call them, can stay hidden underwater for an hour, eventually lunging up to grab their prey and devour it. They look deceptively docile.

Predators abound in this harsh wilderness. We watched in awe as this female Australian Darter wrestled with a large fish…and stayed until the fish’s tail went sliding down her throat.

This four-foot stork (50 inches tall or 127 cm) foraged in the lily flowers.

Equally as enticing were some enormous escarpments: steep, rocky plateaus jutting out of the floodplains. We visited two of the more well-known rock formations that were highlighted with Aboriginal rock art, Ubirr and Nourlangie Rock.

The rock art dates back about 20,000 years. Sources vary as to the exact age of the drawings, but the origin of the artists is undeniably Aboriginal.

The Aboriginals drew pictures not only as expression, but as part of their dream culture, striving to encourage the spiritual world to bestow an abundance of wildlife for hunting, healthy offspring, and other human riches.

By visiting these rock art sites and learning about the original people, a curious thing happened. The past fused with the present, and all of humanity came alive.

It heightened the sacredness of this place.

Link to Rock Art at Kakadu National Park.

Most nights after the heat had diminished by about 20 degrees, a simple walk through the adjacent campground became a fun activity. Due to crocodiles, walking around the wild and watery places was not safe.

So we looked for birds in the campground, where vacationing Australians in their “caravans” (van-size campers) were cooking their dinners and socializing. It was a raucous scene most nights, and endlessly interesting. Up above us in the surrounding trees were unique birds.

In the campground we stood out as birders in our geeky clothes and equipment; and two college students befriended us. They called us “twitchers” (birders) and took us to see owls and stone-curlews, and listen to unusual frogs.

The mornings were filled with sightings of birds and crocodiles and beautiful wetland scenes, until it got too hot.

We spent the afternoons submerged in the lodge swimming pool or reviewing our bird studies. At night the geckos in the room got loud, and we ventured out to the campground.

When our week in Kakadu came to a close, we returned to the Northern Territory’s biggest city (Darwin) about a four-hour drive away. In the pre-dawn morning we boarded a flight for the next leg of our journey on the Great Barrier Reef.

As we continued our Australian adventures, the sacredness, beauty, raw wildness, and danger of Kakadu blissfully remained with us. Thanks for sharing this adventure.

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.

San Francisco: 12 Iconic Sites

Now that travel has begun to open up after Covid, we are seeing more tourists return to San Francisco. Here are 12 of the popular sites for visitors and locals of all ages.

1. Golden Gate Bridge

Probably the most famous bridge in the world, Golden Gate Bridge is 1.7 miles long (2.7 km) and hosts cars, trucks, pedestrians and cyclists. Its art deco design, striking International Orange color, and numerous suspension cables encase each person crossing with a sense of awe.

2. Alcatraz Island

As you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, you can see the rock island of Alcatraz prominently centered in the bay. Formerly a military fort and prison, maximum security federal penitentiary, and civil rights protest occupation, today it is one of the top tourist attractions in San Francisco.

3. Cable Cars

One of San Francisco’s most exhilarating tourist activities, a cable car ride is a spirited mix of old-time travel through the neighborhoods of this modern city. Climbing and descending steep hills to the accompaniment of clanging bells and hand-operated brakes is one of my favorite ways to traverse the city.

Fog in San Francisco is as common as a sunrise.

4. Fisherman’s Wharf

With restaurants, museums, an aquarium, and more, the Wharf is also a good place to catch boat tours. Pier 39, also located at the Wharf, is an animated shopping center complete with rafts of barking sea lions.

My favorite Wharf spot is at the west end at Maritime National Historic Park where you can tour the old sea-faring vessels, watch the birds and swimmers. The square-rigger Balclutha, launched in 1886, is permanently moored here for self-guided tours.

5. Ghirardelli Square

Also down at the Wharf’s west end is Ghirardelli Square. Once the factory where Ghirardelli chocolate was made, this building is now a restaurant and retail complex with views overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

6. Transamerica Pyramid Building

A popular symbol of the San Francisco skyline, the Transamerica Pyramid was completed in 1972. Here, visitors can enjoy a park with redwood trees in the middle of the Financial District. There is also a virtual observation deck experience that allows lobby visitors to operate four cameras positioned atop the building’s spire.

7. Coit Tower

San Francisco 1930s history comes alive inside this building decorated with stunning fresco murals. The tower was built in 1932-1933 and dedicated to volunteer San Francisco firefighters who lost their lives fighting fires. Visitors to the open-air top are rewarded with city and bay views.

This is one of the many murals inside Coit Tower.

8. Palace of Fine Arts

A pleasant stroll around this structure and lagoon brings the visitor back to the days of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition when it was erected as a temporary building. The only Exposition structure not to be torn down, it has been rebuilt and renovated since then, and has had a lifetime of different purposes.

9. Chinatown

The oldest Chinatown in North America, this neighborhood is a densely populated Asian enclave covering 24 blocks of shops, restaurants, homes, hospitals, and churches. A walk through on any day is an interesting combination of old and new culture.

10. Painted Ladies

Seven Victorian houses in a row on Steiner Street. Alamo Park, seen here in the foreground, is often busy with tourists taking selfies in front of the houses.

There were 48,000 Victorian and Edwardian houses built in San Francisco in the years 1849-1915; many can still be seen. The advent of painting them in bright colors started in 1963 and still exists today.

11. The Ferry Building

Completed in 1898, the Ferry Building was originally built as a transportation hub for ferry boats as well as transcontinental railway lines. Since then there have been many changes and renovations, but it still remains a hotspot for ferry boats, commuters, and tourists.

12. Ocean Beach

On the far western side of San Francisco is Ocean Beach. It has been a local recreational site for over a century with Playland, the Sutro Baths, Fleishhacker Pool and several renovations of the Cliff House. Today it attracts residents, visitors, joggers, dog walkers and families.

Whether you visited decades ago or are planning a future visit, these 12 iconic San Francisco sites are just a few of the many picturesque highlights of the City by the Bay.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

The Beauty of Moths

With the first day of summer approaching in the northern hemisphere, now is a good time to take a look at moths. We still have a few warm months to marvel at the beauty of these ghostly insects.

Moths make up the vast majority of the Lepidoptera family, with 160,000 worldwide species. In contrast, there are about 15,000 species of butterflies.

Just like butterflies, moths go through metamorphosis, and feed on plant nectar. They’re marvelous pollinators.

Unlike butterflies, moths are primarily nocturnal.

More moth info: Moth Wikipedia and Lepidoptera Wikipedia

I first started appreciating moths while traveling in the tropics. Frequently prowling at night, looking for owls and other creatures, we have found some extraordinary moths. In Africa some moths are as big as your hand.

Here is a moth who landed on our bungalow steps in Belize. This elegant individual cooperatively transferred onto a white envelope for better photographing.

But you don’t need to travel to exotic places to see moths.

All you need are warm temperatures and night scenes.

Light attracts moths. So there are many ways to observe them, from the simplest way of leaving your porch light on, to more scientific methods with UV lights and trapping techniques.

If you’re really into it, there are recipes for making a sugar mixture. You cool the syrup and paint it onto a tree with a paint brush.

There are also safe ways to build a trap, to gently funnel the moths into a vessel. Then you release the moths when you’re done observing.

There are many variations of DIY mothing methods, I have included several website links below.

But personally, I find the more complicated something like this gets, the less frequently I will do it. So we stick to simple mothing methods and keep it a spontaneous adventure that can be quickly assembled.

Here are two different mothing set-ups in our backyard.

The two main tools we use are: a UV light and a white surface.

We use an extension cord near an electrical outlet, grab the UV light and prop it on top of a box. It only takes a few minutes.

Our set-up costs about $20. I ordered a party “black” light from Amazon.

Turning on the light beforehand, at dusk, helps to increase the insect collection. Then we come out with flashlights in the dark and the show begins.

I use my close-focus binoculars, can see great details, while Athena photographs.

I was amazed at the beautiful flying insects that came into our light. We’d been living here nearly two decades before discovering our night insects.

Different moths cycle through in different seasons, just like birds.

This is a plume moth we first saw in the fall, but have not yet seen this summer.

I didn’t know what the “plumes” actually looked like, until I found this 17th Century drawing.

Plume moth drawing by Robert Hooke, 1635-1703, from Nat’l. Library of Wales. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Most of our moths are small, the size of a coin, and dark colored. But there are always variations, like the Darwin’s Green Moth featured earlier.

And it’s not just moths who come to the light.

Other insects join the party too.

Afterwards, it’s important to turn out the light and put away the sheet, otherwise birds will eat the insects in the morning.

A unique way for people of all ages to enjoy the outdoors on a summer night. Have fun celebrating the summer.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Mothing Links:

Citizen Science Organization on Mothing

Moth Lights from calnature.org

Hummingbird Moths and Mothing from baynature.org

UK website on Butterflies and Moths

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.

The Junco Nest

Finding nests is one of those magical spring events that can sometimes lead to a sad ending. All kinds of things can go wrong in this vulnerable bird activity. But fear not: this story has a happy ending.

Juncos are sparrows, and common across North America. Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) are migrants in parts of the continent, and year-round residents in other parts. Where I live in Northern California, we have both: residents and migrants. The two races look a little different, but at any rate, we have a healthy resident population who are currently nesting. (The migrants left several weeks ago.)

More info: All About Birds Dark-eyed Junco

They are ground birds, with a diet primarily of seeds, and are ground nesters.

You can imagine what kind of dangers lurk for a ground nest on a rural mountain property — snakes, raccoons, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, and skunks frequently roam our hills and forest.

Last autumn there were wild amaryllis flowers, aka Naked Ladies (Amaryllis Belladonna), growing outside our kitchen sink window. They are bright pink flowers with a bubblegum scent. They grow everywhere, like weeds; found these (below) beside a trail in a park. You can see a mass of their dead leaves at the base of the flowers.

Every spring around April, after the flowers outside our kitchen window are long gone, the leaves dry out and turn yellow and we cut them back.

Except this year something different happened.

While the leaves were still green, a junco began hopping around underneath the amaryllis leaves, displaying unusual behavior. We recognized it as nesting behavior and realized the female was building a nest under there.

Slowly the amaryllis leaves began to dry out, but there was still enough foliage for completely camouflaging the nest.

About a week after that, there was more progress. Both the male and female were stealthily and industriously coming in with a worm or insect clamped in their bills. They hopped underneath the leaves, vanished for a second, then flew out; repeating this activity dozens of times in a day.

Babies!

This little corner of our property is not commonly visited by humans. We use it as a shortcut, but visitors don’t…well not human visitors. It’s on a hillside with giant boulders, as you can see in this photo, and not conducive to human walking. Can you see the amaryllis leaves in the middle of the photo? Also, take note of the external pipe on the right side of the photo.

Plenty of wildlife walk through here. After 20 years at the kitchen sink, I have seen so much activity in this little corner of the world. Sure makes doing dishes fun.

This particular nest, however, was worrisome from the start. The ground nesters, in my humble opinion, are asking for trouble.

From the critter cam we know of one skunk individual who regularly waddled through here in February and March. It was part of his or her nightly routine. Suppose that skunk would like a nice, delicious midnight snack.

Now that the nest was there and a new family was on the way, the risks seemed high. I hoped the skunk had found a new routine.

Years ago this gopher snake came through. I guess it found the pipe a fun challenge. But–yikes–a gopher snake so cheeky to wrap around a household pipe must be a very successful hunter.

We commonly have rattlesnakes here too. This time of year they’re just coming out of underground hibernation. Too sad if they were to enjoy some fresh breakfast eggs.

Days went by and the feeding continued, feverishly. Apparently they still had the nestlings.

Although it was tempting to lift the leaves to investigate, we never did.

Not a good idea. Didn’t want to traumatize any of these birds. The parents were working so hard on constantly keeping their new brood fed. And the nestlings were no doubt tiny and extremely fragile.

We waited until the feeding was done and all the birds were gone. That was last week.

We never saw one baby bird, but we were sure they were under there due to all the feeding activity.

Then this past Monday, after a week of nest dormancy, we looked into the nest.

Gingerly pushing away the dead leaves, we found this beautiful grassy nest in a small depression in the ground.

They typically lay 3-5 eggs, and apparently it was a successful brood because the nest was empty except for some fecal sacs.

Whew. It could’ve turned out differently, and we certainly have witnessed plenty of unsuccessful broods. But what a relief and complete joy to know there are several new baby juncos making their way in this world.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Spring at Point Reyes

Spring brings a riot of wildflowers on the pastoral hillsides of Point Reyes, and this year has been heavenly. Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California is a large peninsular park along the Pacific Coast.

It is a park with a rich and diverse history, picturesque beaches and trails, cliffs and bays, a lighthouse and several other interesting and historic features. We often go to the northern side of the park around Tomales Bay, where all photos here were snapped.

Last week we found wild purple iris in hundreds of spots.

During the California Gold Rush in the 1850s, approximately 300,000 people arrived in California and began settling. That is when dairy farms became a prominent part of Point Reyes. Fresh creamy butter, and later, cheese, became highly regarded.

Back then, Point Reyes farmers packed casks of freshly churned butter and loaded it onto schooners. They shipped it to San Francisco, 30 miles south, where it was distributed.

Today there are still 13 commercial dairies here. Although it is a federally designated recreational preserve, the dairies remain legal via grandfathered laws.

The dairy farms continue to supply millions of households with delicious organic dairy products; and farmers never hassle the daily parade of cars filled with tourists, hikers, and beach-goers driving through.

One of the ranches had this mellow horse near the house.

More info: Point Reyes Wikipedia

Pt. Reyes map, courtesy Wikipedia.

In this area of the park there is also a tule elk preserve.

Cervus canadensis nannodes live only in California, and can be seen here in every season.

Last week we came upon this harem, or herd of females, lazing in the sun.

The Point Reyes elk species was extirpated in the 1800s, but the population was revived in the 1970s with a successful reintroduction project. There are about 300 individual elk here today.

We spotted these three male elk grazing in the distance.

With the proximity of the ocean, fog is a common feature at Point Reyes. Heavy winds too. There have been times when I was hiking on a trail and could hear the elk calling very near, but could not see them, obliterated by the thick fog. A few times when the fog cleared, we would be surprised, humans and elk, at how close together we were.

But this April day we were enjoying clear visibility and mild temperatures.

From the car, Athena photographed the three elk, while I was having a stare-down with this bull.

We regularly hike at Abbott’s Lagoon. It is named after two brothers, 19th-century dairy farmers.

There is a three-mile hike through chaparral and sand dunes to the ocean. No dogs are allowed here, and there are no food establishments within 15 miles. It is simply land and sea and walkers.

Quail, white-crowned sparrows, ravens, and raptors always join us.

Last week the male red-winged blackbirds were displaying for the females.

Mammals greet us too–usually deer, bobcat or coyote. We saw this coyote last week.

There is a patch of bare brown sticks along the trail, it’s taller than all the hikers, and nondescript. In spring the foliage and flowers come alive, revealing it as salmonberry.

When we’re not hiking, we’re driving the roads spotting wildlife. I drive slowly on the windswept hillsides, pulling over to allow fast cars to pass, while Athena’s camera clicks away.

Since the pandemic has curtailed our travel, we’ve been staying local. We visit Point Reyes for a half-day, just an hour or so from home, and it feels like a vacation.

And now I can’t think of a better place to vacation.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Earth Creatures

With Earth Day coming next week, let’s take a fun look at animals who live not on top of the earth…but inside it.

Mammals, reptiles, insects and many more creatures dig this earth.

Mammals. Many mammals live underground to give birth and raise their young.

Bears come first to mind, as the largest hibernators on our planet. They live roughly half their lives inside their dens.

Badgers, rabbits and foxes occupy dens too.

Many smaller mammals, like this mongoose below, live in burrows. Burrows, like dens, provide protection from predators as well as temperature extremes.

Warthogs, mammals in the pig family, do not have fur and use their burrows to stay warm, give birth and raise their young. They use their ivory tusks to dig for tubers, leaving the burrow-digging to other animals, usually using old aardvark burrows.

In Africa, guides warn you not to stand in front of any holes because it could be a warthog burrow; and those small but ferocious animals come bounding out tusks-first if they sense danger.

You might not guess that river otters use dens. Although they spend a lot of time in the water, they require oxygen to breathe.

Like warthogs and many other mammals, river otters use the burrows of other animals, usually beavers, for giving birth.

While many animals borrow burrows, prairie dogs are the original architects of their underground kingdom.

Found in the grasslands of North America, prairie dogs have short bodies and strong claws perfect for digging. They build extensive underground colonies, called towns, that can span hundreds of acres.

Where I live in Northern California, hibernating chipmunks are starting their springtime surfacing. These adorable little animals are so busy, I love it when they return topside.

This vole had me laughing on a recent day at dusk, as it stealthily scrambled out of his hole, grabbed a morsel from under the bird feeder, then shot back to the burrow. He did this numerous times, one tiny morsel at a time.

Some birds use burrows, too.

Burrowing owls use ground squirrel or prairie dog tunnels for their roosting and nesting.

Kingfishers and bee-eaters also nest underground. Bee-eaters loosen the soil or sand by jabbing with their sharp bills, then use their feet to kick out the loosened debris.

Reptiles. Ectotherms, like lizards and snakes who rely on outside sources for thermoregulation, need the energy of the sun to move. After a winter of hibernating underground, they wake up in spring and come out of the earth.

On warm days lately our western fence lizards and alligator lizards are joining us.

A few years back, we found this California whipsnake, who moves as fast as a whip, foraging on top of the bush because the ground hadn’t warmed up yet that day.

Insects and Others. The world of insects is immense, as you know, but here are a few familiar insects who live inside the earth.

Cicadas come out of their burrows after living underground for years in the larval stage. The underground hibernation can last as long as 17 years for some species.

Beetles often live underground too.

Perhaps the most familiar underground insects to humans are termites and ants.

Termites are colonizing insects, of which there are many kinds. The mound-building termites found in Africa, South America and Australia build above-ground structures that act as ventilation systems for the underground nest. Often the mound outlives the colony.

This is a dormant termite mound in Australia that is over six feet tall. In the background of this harsh and dry habitat you can see smaller mounds across the landscape.

And ants, well they are the most supreme underground beings on this earth. Our planet has tens of thousands of ant species. Highly social insects, they form elaborate organized colonies underground.

Leafcutter ants, my favorite ant species, can be found in tropical parts of the Americas. Next to humans, leafcutter ants form the largest and most complex animal societies on Earth.

In this photo, each ant is carrying a morsel of leaf they have bit off. They are headed, all in the same direction, to their subterranean fungal garden. In just a few years, their nests can grow to 98 feet across (30 m) and contain eight million ants.

Lastly, earthworms, crustaceans and many water-associated creatures also live below earth’s surface. These fiddler crabs were entertaining us during low tide, as they skittered in and out of their burrows.

Underground nests, burrows, and dens benefit the earth in many ways, and they have fascinating creatures to watch.

Whether they come bounding out of their burrow in a deadly pursuit, or languidly emerging after 17 years, underground creatures have elaborate subterranean worlds.

Cheers to Earth Day and all of us who live on and in this planet.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Frog Miracles

It’s that incredible time of year when our local frogs are mating. The adult frog is about the size of your thumb, but they are singing with voices so big I can hear them a half-mile away at the neighbor’s pond. Hundreds of them.

Pacific Treefrogs live primarily in the western U.S. The species we see in Northern California is called Pseudacris sierrae or Sierran Treefrog. This lovely little creature has been classified and re-classified so many times, its name is confusing. For simplicity here, we’ll use its more common over-arching name: the Pacific Treefrog (they don’t live in trees).

They require water for mating, so around January or February, depending on how much the earth has warmed, the mature adults journey on their padded toes to ponds or ditches.

The males use their “advertisement calls” to announce their fitness to competing males and to attract females. The male’s throat sack balloons up when it makes this call.

Poor little treefrogs have a lot of predators.

Snakes, raccoons, herons, egrets, and other small mammals and reptiles eat them.

The frogs breed in shallow water sources that usually dry up after winter; taking their chances to reproduce by not being in a predictable, predatory drinking source.

Pacific Treefrog Wikipedia

Although their body color is variable (green, tan, brown, gray, reddish or cream), they’re usually just green or brown, like in these photos. Typically they are the color of their environment; but they do also have the ability to quickly change colors to avoid predation.

It is difficult to get any photo of this frog for many reasons: they are more active at night (dark); usually hidden in leaves or half submerged in water; and they stop ribbiting when they feel the vibration of your footsteps.

In addition, they’re super tiny.

Now it’s past mid-March and the males and females are no doubt beginning to pair up. The female will lay her eggs as the male fertilizes them externally.

She will lay an average of 400-750 eggs, in small clusters of 10-80 at a time.

The eggs are visible in daylight, but you have to almost have your face in the water to see them. Binoculars or a powerful camera lens help.

The eggs are gelatinous tiny balls in a cluster, usually clinging to a twig or plant stem. Here are some clinging to the orange weed as noted.

After mating season, the adults leave and the eggs hatch into tadpoles about two weeks later. Left on their own, the teensy tadpoles aggregate for thermoregulation and to avoid predation. They eat algae and bacteria. This stage lasts 2-2.5 months.

In this stage they undergo an incredible metamorphosis eventually growing four legs, and simultaneously losing their tails. The tail gets absorbed into the froglet body. Because there are hundreds of thousands of tadpoles in the neighbor’s pond, we see the tadpoles in various stages of metamorphosis.

Here you see a tadpole with both legs and its tail. The tail has not yet been absorbed. The sun shadows amplify its features.

This photo reflects two tadpole stages on one leaf.

Here is an older froglet swimming, still with its tail; it has more distinctive adult markings. There is also a younger tadpole, tail only, on the left.

Frogs, tadpoles, froglets — they are a yet another reminder of the miracles of life and all its stages.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Northern Calif. in March

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the emergence of spring has been an exhilarating and uplifting gift. Here are a few of the joys we are currently experiencing in Northern California.

In the valleys, the vineyards are bursting with wild mustard, and ornamental trees are flowering everywhere.

Wildflowers are just starting their show.

California poppies, our state flower, are tightly closed on rainy days and dotting the hillsides with bright orange on sunny days. Soon there will be huge patches of them.

It’s milder down in the valleys. Up on our mountain we’ve had snow and hail several times this week, along with many hours of driving rain and freezing temperatures.

Most of us are glad because more rain and snow now, mean less drought and wildfires in the fall.

After a day or two, the sun comes out and the sky once again turns bright blue.

This wild gooseberry plant on our property survived several bouts of hail this week.

Our grass is brown and crunchy for most of the year. But from January through about April, the grass is rich with chlorophyll. I find myself often staring appreciatively at blades of grass, the sun shining through their verdant membranes.

The oak woodlands are a fairyland. The deciduous oaks, in their mossy, lichen winter look, have slowly been budding for weeks. With more light in each day, the buds are growing plumper, and soon a leaf will pop out here and there.

Underneath the oaks, early wildflowers grace the earth, like buttercups and milkmaids.

Before daylight arrives, the frogs are singing their spring praises, and I often hear duetting great horned owls. For a morning person like me, who’s always up in the dark, this is a blissful greeting.

Daytime birds and creatures are also shifting with the new season. Brush rabbits are rewarded with nutrient-rich grass and weeds.

Bluebird pairs are checking out the just-cleaned nest boxes, and the titmice have switched from their winter calls to their spring love songs.

Some days there’s thick fog and hail, other days it’s mild and sunny, colorful flowers shine through it all, and the wildlife are just as excited as the humans for this new season. Hope is everywhere.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.