Cormorants and More, Richardson Bay

Cormorants in San Francisco Bay

Because they are common and widespread, sometimes I take cormorants for granted.  Then one day I found myself living on the San Francisco Bay, in temporary housing, and I witnessed some unique behavior.

 

In the Bay Area the double-crested cormorant is the prevalent species. They spend their day swimming and flying in search of fish, and can often be seen diving underwater for prey. They are excellent divers, and have webbed feet for fast underwater propulsion.

 

Wikipedia Double-crested Cormorant

 

On my first day here, standing on the balcony overlooking the bay, I noticed a very large flock of cormorants down at the water. There were hundreds of the black sea birds, and they were synchronistically flying in the same direction. They swirled together in a great dance, slightly above the water’s surface.

 

Most of us have observed individual cormorants on land, spreading their wings, drying out. But this enormous flock all swooping together was new to me.

I had many other tasks to contend with, while we sort out the remains of our fire-damaged property, so I was soon off to something else. But throughout the week I continued to notice this phenomenon. I was seeing it almost every day, and always in the early morning.

Cormorants, SF Bay, Streets of San Francisco in background

Cormorants are colonial nesters, and at night they roost in large groups. From the balcony I noticed they have a favorite sea wall, where they congregate. When they take off in the morning, they often do so together.

 

Then I learned why they fly together:  for better fishing.

 

Although they do not always flock in groups this large, when it does occur, they form a line. The line of birds, close to the water, follow the fish underwater and chase them. More cormorants opportunistically join the flock, sometimes thousands.

 

They often fly in a “V” shape and there is a hierarchy to the front line; sometimes there are hundreds, sometimes just a dozen. They surge and swoosh and make abrupt directional changes, always following the fish underwater.

 

If the fish escape the flying predators, the cormorants quickly disperse.

 

But if the cormorants are triumphant and succeed in snatching the fish, then there is much splashing.

 

Ornithological Study on the Cormorant Fishing Activity 

 

Double-crested Cormorant

I went down to the water one morning this week to photograph the big flocks. I didn’t find the huge flocks, but I watched thousands of cormorants heading out for a day of fishing.

 

And while I was photographing the cormorants, I spotted a sea lion. I was watching the sea lion, waiting for it to re-surface after a dive, when the most marvelous thing happened.

 

A whale surfaced right in front of me. It gave the characteristic sigh sound, of breathing air, and breached the water’s surface. I enjoyed one second of seeing the whale’s barnacled back, and then it disappeared. Based on the size and color, and since it is their migration time, I am quite certain it was a gray whale.

 

These are a few of the riches of Richardson Bay, a marine sanctuary on the northern edge of the San Francisco Bay. I’m going to be here for at least three months, and am looking forward to sharing more with you.

 

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

Double-crested Cormorants in Richardson Bay, SF Bay. Photo: Richard Hinz

 

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The Bearded Bellbird

Bearded Bellbird, calling; Trinidad

Earlier this year we spent five nights in a Trinidad rainforest. While there, we were introduced to the Bearded Bellbird, a unique bird with a booming voice.

 

Named for the beard-like feathers on his throat, Procnias averano occur in a few areas of northern South America. See map below. Only the males have the “beard.”

 

The rainforest path we were on, Trinidad

A frugivorous bird, they feed on fruit and berries. They live high in the canopy, where you rarely see them…but always hear them.

 

The call is unmistakable, and loud, and carries very far. We heard it all day long and sometimes into the early evening:  a loud, staccato croaking that echoes throughout the forest.

 

Males make the call, insistently informing other bellbirds of their territory. The species is polygamous, and during mating season the male attracts the female with an elaborate song and dance. The rest of the year, like when we were there, they just project the croaking calls. Mating season or not, they spend 87% of daylight hours in calling territories within the forest.

 

Also on the trail: Golden Tegu Lizard

Click here for the sound recording, taken in the same rainforest where I was, at Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad.

 

Sometimes the bellbird’s call is incessant, like in this recording. But I never tired of it.

 

There are so many alien sounds in a rainforest, and it is often a surprise when you finally locate the creature. Some of the tiniest frogs can sound like huge, menacing mammals; while an animal that can kick your guts out, like the Australian cassowary, may have no warning call.

 

Agouti, Trinidad, watching us on the trail

Our first day there we were on a guided hike, and the guide took us right to the bird. The Bellbird was perched about 15′ off the ground (4.5 m). A couple of times I flinched from the racket.

 

For as loud and abrupt as the call was, I had imagined a larger bird. He was about the size of a pigeon, but for the volume he was projecting I expected an eagle. He shouted his croak for so long that finally, after everyone in our small group had observed and photographed from all angles, we left.

 

He was such a cool bird that the next day, sans guide, Athena and I went searching for the bellbird again. We went back down the same trail, following the bellowing croaks.

Bearded Bellbird, Trinidad

Everything seems so simple when you have a guide. Without the guide we somehow got off the main trail, lost in a dense forest.

 

Sweaty and bug-bitten, we eventually got back to the main trail, continued the bellbird pursuit for about a half hour. Regardless of how strikingly loud the call was, we could not find the bird anywhere. We have both been birding all over the world for 25 years, doggedly locating silent birds, tiny birds, and camouflaged birds deep in the brush. To not locate the caller of this loud and direct sound was stupefying.

 

But then a more important sound preempted the bird: the lunch bell.

 

So we reluctantly left the unfound bellbird, later learning another incredible feature of this bird: ventriloquism.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Violacious Euphonia, also on the trail

Procnias averano (Beaded Bellbird) range. Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

 

 

 

Black (as Night) Friday

Spotted Hyena, Zambia

This is the day in America when shoppers are enticed into stores for big sales. But for those of us who find greater value in fresh air and nature scenes, I thought it would be fun on this Friday to take you into the black night of Africa.

 

Except for the light of the moon, the nights are pitch black.

 

Giant Eagle Owl, Botswana aka Verreaux’s Owl

 

Safari Night Drive. One night in Zambia we were slowly driving along in the dark when our guide stopped and told us to get ready. We couldn’t hear or see anything, but he told us which way to face. Cameras went up.

 

Then he turned on the spotlight and right in front of us was a pool with about a dozen hippos quietly grazing on the water plants.

 

Hippo Pool, Zambia

 

Most of the time, guides keep the spotlight turned off to avoid disturbing the animals; they slowly drive the jeep with just parking lights.

 

With the spotlight off, all you can see are the animals’ eye-shine piercing through the deep dark. It is eerie to look out over a grass field and see dozens of those colored eyes looking at you. You don’t know if it’s a snarling hyena or an antelope.

 

You never ever step out of the vehicle.

 

Leopard, Zambia

 

The metallic-like colored dots are at various heights. Low to the ground are the hares, mongooses, rodents, and night birds. Several inches higher up are the small wild cats like civet or genet.

 

Genet, Tanzania

 

Gabon Nightjar, Zambia

 

Even on the blackest, darkest night, a good guide can identify the animal just by the eye shine. Eyes can be close together, far apart, and different colors according to species. Animal identification also depends on where the eyes are:  in tall grass, on tree limbs, in water, running, or not running.

 

We came across this leopard pair in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia. We saw them a couple of times, and at one point the male had caught a bird that hung limply from his jaws. They walked off to enjoy their midnight snack, and we never saw them again.

 

Leopards, Zambia

 

Wild Cat, Botswana — Ancestor to the Domestic House Cat

 

The elephant was one of my favorite experiences in all of life. The photo is not the greatest, but the memory is. That night we were awakened by a stormy rustling.

 

It turned out to be a mother and her calf just outside our flimsy door. What sounded like a rain storm was the mother elephant tearing apart a tree, eating the leaves.

 

We remained silently watching, not making a sound.

 

Elephant, Zambia, the structure with windows on the left is our cottage

The story: The Night the Elephants Came to Visit

 

Here’s to enjoying the wild mysteries of the night.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

African Civit

 

Eucalyptus in the Bay Area

Eucalyptus trees, eucalyptus globulus, Berkeley, CA

A tree that is native to Australia, the eucalyptus also thrives in the San Francisco Bay Area. This has been a fiercely contested topic for over thirty years.

 

I am still a vagabond after the fires last month destroyed parts of our home, spent this past weekend at a friend’s in the Berkeley/East Bay area. This part of the Bay Area has many eucalyptus trees. One day I took a walk through a large cemetery. It was filled with eucalyptus trees, and I was reminded of the controversy.

 

Some people like the eucalyptus trees. The pungent fragrance, exotic multi-colored trunks, and tall stature are pleasing. The tree produces a sweet nectar that draws hummingbirds, and other birds. It has seed pods and seasonal flowers, and elegant pointy leaves. It has beneficial medicinal value, too.

Eucalyptus tree trunk, Berkeley, CA. Ground debris has been cleaned up by groundskeepers.

 

I am always happy to see the flocks of yellow-rumped warblers that invariably visit groves of eucalyptus. The cheerful birds dance around in the tall treetops.

 

Other people despise the tree. The bark sheds in long strips, and sometimes limbs drop off too, making it a danger. Bark and pods and leaves litter the ground. Fire Departments all over California curse the flammability of the tree.

 

Moreover, a non-native invasive, they can overtake the native flora, and corresponding fauna as well. Due to its ability to readily re-sprout, it is nearly impossible to fully eradicate without use of strong pesticides.

 

Lawsuits, protests, campaigns, and debates have sparked the community for decades.

 

Eucalyptus leaves, Berkeley, CA

 

Atlantic magazine article about the debate. 

 

As with much of Bay Area history, the California Gold Rush of the 1850s started the trend when the population dramatically increased. Lumber was needed to build housing. By the early 1900s entrepreneurs, like Frank C. Havens, a real estate developer, were certain this fast-growing tree was the perfect solution for quick lumber.  He imported eucalyptus seedlings from Australia, and planted millions of trees all over the Bay Area.

 

Soon after, he discovered that the wood was too young for lumber use. The wood bent, cracked, and shrank.

 

In today’s bigger picture, there are 700+ species of eucalyptus, native to Australia and surroundings. There they call it “the gum tree.” Gum trees are everywhere. The leaves are the koala’s main diet.

 

A farmer and his dog, Kangaroo Isl., Aus.; in a grove of gum trees

 

One day while in Australia, we were looking for koalas in this grove (above). A ranger had told us we would find koalas here, and we had spent an hour searching for them, but found nothing. Then a farmer drove up (we were on his property), asked us if we needed help. We told him what we were doing, he leaned out of the front window, pointed up and showed us three koalas sleeping in the trees.

 

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree (Blue-winged Kookaburra, Queensland, Australia)

 

Eucalyptus globulus, also known as the Tasmanian Blue Gum, is the prevalent species in the Bay Area. They usually range in height from 98-180 feet tall (30-55 m).

 

The get-rich-quick themes of yesteryear have caused problems for native plants of today. All over the world there are theories and plans for eradicating invasive non-natives, making more hospitable space for native species; not just for eucalyptus trees, but for many plants and animals.

 

But as I stood underneath the Berkeley eucalyptus trees this past weekend, I filled my lungs with the refreshing aroma, and thanked them for their strength and beauty.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Aus., in gum tree

 

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Regulus calendula1.jpg

Photo courtesy Wikipedia

One of North America’s smaller birds, the ruby-crowned kinglet spends the winter in northern California. I have had the pleasure of watching this sprightly bird many times this week, in the urban neighborhood where I am staying.

 

At 3.5-4.3 inches long (9-11 cm), they are bigger than a hummingbird, smaller than a chickadee. In the winter they are not searching for a mate or singing; they are hunting. They eat mostly insects, like spiders and ants, but also berries and tree sap sometimes.

 

Photo credit: Dan Pancamo, Wikipedia

Wikipedia info here. 

 

Although the name suggests they have a ruby crown, this feature is rarely visible. I’ve seen this delightful bird at least a thousand times, and only saw the ruby crown twice. Once was 25 years ago after a big rain…his crest sparkled like a ruby. Only the males have this feature.

 

Photo credit: Dan Pancamo, Wikipedia

The kinglet migrates, they just arrived to California last month. They stay in milder climates, like the southern U.S. and west coast, throughout the winter. See map below.

 

A common bird, seen in urban, rural, and suburban settings, there are an estimated 90 million ruby-crowned kinglets across North America.  They appear restless, acrobatically flitting about and frequently flicking their wings, and so fast they are tricky to see sometimes.

 

Everyday I hear the kinglet. It’s not a melodious tune, for it is not mating time, but it is distinctive. It’s a ratcheting clicking sound, known as a contact call; I can hear it through the closed windows.

 

Ruby-crowned kinglet contact call. 

 

No matter what I’m doing, I hear the bird’s click-click and know that this perky little bird is outside the window cheering up my space.

 

Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Range Map

The Power of the Lion

Dear friends, I am humbled and grateful for your kindness and support from all over the world. Although I am unable to respond to each individual at this time, please know I am reading your comments, a blanket of comfort.

 

We are still displaced from our home, and will be at least a half year or more, so the tasks are tremendous, and mounting with each new day.

 

In order to keep my courage up, I have been thinking a lot about the bold, raw power of the ferocious lion. This is a post I published two years ago: Lions in the Serengeti.

 

Lioness, Ngorongoro Crater, Africa

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

 

Coming Home

Our road

After a half month of mandatory absence, evacuating in a blur under raining ash and advancing fires, residents were allowed entry into their homes this week. One of the most disturbing days of my life.

 

We all have disturbing days. The longer we live, the more pain and sorrow we collect, watching loved ones leave this world, and worse. But I’ll not go into the details of that deeply painful day, I’ll let the photos tell that story.

Our road

This section of forest, above, used to be my “favorite maple” section. Big Leaf Maple trees, they wore big yellow lobed leaves every autumn, and bright green new leaves each spring.

 

There’s a sunrise unfolding as I write this from my temporary housing. It’s a stunning view of the San Francisco Bay, I’ll show you in a minute.

 

We lost all our out-buildings (three), but not the house. All tools, winter clothes, luggage, some office equipment; plus irreplaceable items like the Christmas ornaments we have collected for 30 years from all over the world, and 40 years of my journals.

 

Before and After of Athena’s Work Studio.

Before:

Studio “Before”

After:

Studio “After”

 

This week we’re staying on an inlet of the bay; and as we file claims, cancel accounts and trips, and inquire into temporary apartments, the tide flows in, and the tide flows out.

 

I’ve counted 27 bird species here this week, and one day a sea lion came to visit.

 

Before and After of Our Electrical Panel. The “before” photo was originally taken for the bird nest tucked in the center. A Pacific-slope Flycatcher raised four chicks there in 2006.

Before:

Electrical Panel “Before.” Flycatcher nest in center

After:

Electrical Panel “After”

 

We cannot return to our house for a few months until the electrical, plumbing, and septic systems are fixed. We were up there twice this week. On Monday, the first day, we walked around in goggles and face masks, wandered from one melted mass to another. The charred trees wavered overhead in the wind, threatening to topple.

 

On Thursday, when we returned, we found five men from the power company sitting in our driveway, one was eating potato chips. It was their lunchtime and they were there to cut down trees for the new power line.

 

San Francisco skyline and the Bay Bridge at dawn this week

 

Every day here in our Airbnb there’s a snowy egret that cruises in, and a kingfisher who arrives and departs with a rattle and a swoop. Willets linger on the rocks. Three Canada Geese spend every night here, and every morning they honk as they lift their big bodies into the sky.

 

Each day brings a new dawn, no matter where we are.  And the longer we live, the more glorious sunrises we have.

 

Willets, Richardson Bay

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Gracious thanks for all your warm comments, encouragement, and support, my friends and loved ones.