Raptors in Autumn

Barred Owl, Texas

Every fall thousands and thousands of raptors in North America migrate south for the winter as their food supplies begin to wane. Here are some basic facts about raptors and where to find them as we enter into the northern hemisphere’s autumn.

 

Also known as birds of prey, raptors include many different species. Some more commonly known raptors are: eagles, ospreys, kites, hawks, vultures, falcons, and owls.

Osprey in Mangroves

Not all raptors migrate. It depends on how cold the winters get, if there is enough available prey. We are fortunate in Northern California to see many raptor species in all seasons.

 

Other parts of the country, however, have consistently cold winter weather and, consequently, raptor migration every autumn.

 

Snail Kite

 

Although raptor migration lasts roughly between August and November, late September is the prime time for watching these grand birds.

 

Bald Eagle, California. This raptor almost went extinct.

With their sturdy wings and broad wing-spans, they utilize upward air currents, i.e. thermals, to assist with their long flights. The migrating populations concentrate along mountain ridge lines, coast lines, and other topographical features to take advantage of the updrafts.

 

See the map below for raptor migration pathways in North America.

Merlin, Sacramento NWR, California

American Kestrel, California

Turkey vulture pair on fence, drying wings; Calif. coast

 

There are numerous predictable spots for hawkwatching in North America, where anyone can observe migrating raptors, especially hawks.

 

Two popular U.S. hawkwatch stations I have visited are Cape May, NJ on the east coast; and Hawk Hill outside San Francisco on the west coast. Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania is the most famous hawkwatch station in the U.S.

Red-tailed Hawk in rain, California

 

Cooper’s Hawk, California

 

Because migrating hawks fly high over land masses, the birds are usually far away from us ground-dwellers. Raptor migration birding, therefore, engages in a different kind of bird-observing technique. There are no bird sounds or calls, and no close-up views for bird identification. Instead, birders systematically scan the sky with binoculars or scopes; and identify the species by silhouette, profile, size, plumage, and flight behavior.

 

Many times I have stood beside hawkwatchers with my own high-powered binoculars looking at what they look at, as they call out their sightings. Usually, to the bare eye, the hawk is the size of a rice grain.

 

Data is recorded and posted daily. The information gleaned from it is paramount in raptor conservation.

 

Osprey, Florida

 

Red-tailed hawk with chick, California

 

California Condor, Calif. — another raptor we almost lost to extinction

 

Great Horned Owlet, California

 

Raptors are important birds for providing our planet with a healthy ecosystem.

 

Raptor Conservation Wikipedia

 

If you are interested in finding a Hawkwatch venue in North America, hawkcount.org provides links to approximately one hundred sites.

 

For folks who just enjoy seeing a powerful bird soaring overhead, now is a good time of year to keep your eyes open and your neck craned.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander, all North American raptors

PS – For my friends–you’ll be happy to know Athena and I are moving  home tomorrow, after 11.5 months displacement following the October 2017 Wine Country fires. This is our ninth and final move in the post-fire event. Our own migration.

 

Hawk Mountain Raptor Migration Path Map

North American Raptor Migration Pathways. Courtesy hawkmountain.org

 

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Cable Cars – A San Francisco Treat

Hyde-Powell Cable Car track

Beneath the streets of San Francisco are underground cables that run all day long. If you can catch a quiet moment on one of the cable car streets, you will hear the high-pitched hum of the constantly running cable.

 

Originally invented by Andrew Smith Hallidie, cable cars have been carrying commuters and tourists through San Francisco since 1873. Designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark, it is the only true cable car system left in the world.

San Francisco cable car, California Line

Cable Car Wikipedia

 

This network of cables and pulleys originates from one powerhouse located at Washington and Jackson Streets, and it runs the whole city’s cable car system. Here there is also the Cable Car Museum, which I recommend; it’s free.

Cable Car Museum. Underground cables operating in powerhouse

Each cable car has two operators: the conductor, who takes tickets ($7.00); and the grip person, who runs the car and grips the brakes.

 

With the underground cable running, the grip person starts and stops the cable car by attaching to or releasing from the cable. This takes great strength; the car has a passenger capacity of 60-68 people. So one Herculean person operates the grip that brakes the car carrying 60+ people.

 

Cable car grip man

 

 

Cable car stop

 

San Francisco Hyde Street cable car

The history and facts are interesting…but it’s the ride that is the thrill.

 

I have lived in or around San Francisco for 30 years, and I never ever tire of riding the cable cars.

San Francisco cable car

The wind is blowing through your hair, the car is rocking slightly, and creaking. The car is sandwiched between UPS delivery trucks, other double-parked work trucks, and speedy cars as we trundle up and down the precipitous hills.

 

Street scenes abound as we cruise by apartment buildings, houses, corner stores, and schools.

 

The clanking of the bell, the dampness of the fog.

 

From a few of the hilltops you can see Alcatraz Island in the distance, anchored in the Bay; and the Golden Gate Bridge. The aroma of savory foods waft out of Chinatown.

 

A quintessential San Francisco experience…not to be missed.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Cable car riders. From R Athena, Jet, Jet’s sister, and brother-in-law. July 2018.

Check out this old cable car commercial from 1962, pretty fun.

 

Monkeying Around

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

Monkeys  and humans are both primates — I think that’s why humans find monkeys so entertaining to watch. There are 260 species of monkeys currently living in the world, here are a few monkey species I have seen in the wild.

 

Wikipedia Monkey

 

Monkeys are generally divided into two major types: Old World and New World.

 

The Old World monkeys photographed here were seen in different parts of Africa. They are also found in Asia.

Olive Baboon, Tanzania

Baboons are one of the easier Old World monkeys to spot not only because of their larger size, but also because they travel in large troops. There were many instances when the safari vehicle rounded a corner to find a troop of 50 or 100 baboons walking their daily route.

Olive Baboon, Tanzania, Africa

Monkeys grooming one another is a frequent occurrence; it is one of my favorite monkey observations. Known as social grooming, it is done for health benefits as well as relationship bonding.

Savannah Baboons grooming, Botswana

 

Typical of monkeys, the vervet monkeys have extensive hierarchies and elaborate social behavior.

Vervet Monkey, Botswana

Vervets have been known to express 30 different alarm calls. They can readily be observed vocalizing warnings to their peers when a predator is nearby. Vervets take this vocalization to a higher level of intelligence by specifically saying which of their four predators is lurking.

 

Our guides could tell us what predator we were about to see based on the different vocalizations they recognized in the vervet monkeys’ alarm calls.

 

Native to Africa, black-and-white colobus monkeys are strikingly beautiful to see dancing among the treetops.

Colobus Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Africa

Blue monkeys, though they’re not really blue, mostly eat fruit and can be found in Central and East Africa.

Blue Monkey, Lake Manyara, Tanzania, Africa

 

Now let’s head to the Western Hemisphere. New World monkeys, found in Central and South America, include the capuchin and howler monkeys.

 

There are approximately ten different kinds of capuchin monkeys, sporting many different colors. They are considered the most intelligent of the New World monkeys. Energetic and lithe, they have been used as service animals to assist people challenged with spinal injuries.

Brown Capuchin Monkeys, Peru

 

Known for their eerie, howling calls, howler monkeys are considered to be the loudest land animal. It is one of my favorite sounds in the rainforest…except for my first time when I thought I was going to die.

Red Howler Monkeys, Peru

Here’s a You Tube video with a good howler recording. Click here. 

Red howler Monkeys, Manu, Peru. Photo by Bill Page

 

It is an expansive family of interesting beings, our fellow primates, the monkeys.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Blue Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Kenya, Africa

 

Curious George.png

Curious George

 

Sharing the Wrens

Bewick’s Wren on grape vine, California

A perky bird with a tiny body and big sound, wrens can be found around the world. The dominant wren family, Troglodytidae, is primarily found in the New World, as well as Europe and Asia. There are 88 species in this family.

 

One came visiting in the garden the other day to remind me wrens are present in cities, towns, and gardens as well as forests, canyons, deserts, marshes, and other rural areas. There are grape vines in the urban garden where I am currently residing, and this wren, above, comes to visit every day.

 

Wren overview, Wikipedia

 

Preying on insects and spiders, they dart and dash in search of a meal in a variety of habitats. The array of habitats is impressive, and often a wren is named after the habitat it prefers. There are marsh wrens, rock wrens, canyon wrens, cactus wrens, and more.

 

Intricately marked and often sporting a cocked tail, the Troglodytidae wren is small, averaging 5.5 inches (14 cm).

 

Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin. Typical setting for marsh wrens

 

Marsh Wren, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

Lately, as we enter into autumn in the northern hemisphere, I hear their scolding calls. In springtime we are greeted by wrens with a more melodious breeding song.

 

North America has approximately 11 different wren species. The three wren species I see most in California: the ubiquitous house wren, seen in towns, suburbs, and rural areas; the marsh wren, in marsh areas; and the Bewick’s wren, seen throughout the western U.S.

House Wren, Wisconsin meadow

While it is always fun to chase after my familiar hometown wren friends, spotting other wren species in travel is equally as enjoyable.

Canyon Wren in a Nevada canyon

The canyon wren’s song is always a thrill, with their distinctive descending notes echoing throughout rock canyons. Allow me to share their song with you: click here and hit the red arrow.

Carolina Wren, Texas; parent going to the nest

When I spot a Carolina wren, I am never in the Carolinas. When I spot a house wren, I am never in a house. But when I spot a marsh wren, I am always at a marsh.

 

Wherever I am, they are a joy.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander

 

House wren going to the nest (under rusty globe)

 

Rock Wren drawing by John James Audubon

 

Happy Solstice

Monarch Butterfly, Horicon Marsh, WI

Those of us in the northern hemisphere are entering into summer solstice this week, celebrating the longest day of the year and the beginning of summer. The word solstice derives from the Latin for sun (sol) and to stand still (sistere).

 

Here are a few North American summer moments, when the power of the sun (and the camera) slowed the natural world down to a perfect stand-still.

Mother Moose and calf, Rocky Mtn. Nat’l. Park, Colorado

 

 

Common Green Darner, Anax junius. California

It’s a quiet moment when dragonflies cruise by–nothing says summer days like a dragonfly.

Horicon Marsh

Halloween Pennant Dragonfly, Wisconsin

 

Insects and wildflowers grace us with color and vibrance as they busily gather sustenance during these longest of days.

Hypericum coccinum, aka Gold Wire, with ladybug. California

 

Great Spangled Fritillary (female), Wyoming

And is there a more remarkable insect than the butterfly? I don’t think so.

 

The miracle of life in four distinct stages. They start out the warm season as an egg, hatch into a tiny caterpillar, then forage their way across the host plant, a legacy from their mother.

 

As they continue to eat, they grow into plump caterpillars until they sense the time for pupation, and form their own protective chrysalis. Then one day they stretch out of the chrysalis, unfurl wings, and fly off.

 

Anise Swallowtail caterpillar, California

 

Anise Swallowtail Butterfly, California

 

Another summer gift for us to behold: birds fledging from their nests, launching into their first flights.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher nestlings, 15 days of life. They fledged soon after.

 

Carolina Wren, Texas; parent tending the nest

 

Summer is a time for singing, and no birds enchant us more with melodious sweetness than the songbirds.

Prairie Dickcissel, Attwater Preserve, Texas

 

Common Yellowthroat, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

 

Rivers and ponds, forests and prairies, suburbs, cities and countrysides all come alive in summer.

Marsh meadow, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

Ft. Collins park, Colorado

We humans are cradled by the sun, presented with a whirlwind of nature during these long and productive days. We, too, sing and flutter, grow and frolic.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander

I am taking a short summer break, my friends, will return in a few weeks. I hope your days, whether they’re going into summer or winter, are filled with beautiful moments.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly, California

 

Lovable Lizards

Land Iguana, Isabela Isl., Galapagos

There are over 6,000 species of lizards on our planet, residing on all continents except Antarctica.  Here are some basic facts and photos of a few of my favorites.

 

One thing I love about lizards is their adaptability. Depending on the severity of danger, they can sacrifice their tail and grow a new one, change colors, and vanish in an instant.

Green Iguana, Costa Rica

Another thing I love is their solar power. Lizards are ectotherms, they require heat sources outside their body to function. Also known as cold-blooded (not technically accurate), lizards regulate their body temperature according to the sun.

 

Once in awhile I will find a lizard when the sun has been absent, like at dawn on a foggy day, and they are frozen in place. Immobile. I like this about lizards, too — their vulnerability. Of course, that’s not their favorite thing.

 

There are many remarkable features about lizards, read more here:

Lizard Wikipedia

 

Green Anole, Texas

 

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

With six thousand lizard species, there are thousands of variations. I have watched lizards run across water, eat algae under water, flare out their neck to twice its size, and hang upside down for days.

 

Some lizards change colors to attract mates, some change colors to escape detection (camouflage), and others are bright their whole life.

 

Hawaiian Gecko

 

Spiny-tailed Iguana pair, Belize

I live in a hot, dry climate in California. In the spring and summer we have three regular lizard species, each is a home-time favorite and much revered.

Western Fence Lizard, California

The western fence lizard is the most prevalent, we see them every day from May through October. The male does push-ups and displays a brilliant blue belly during breeding season.

Western Fence Lizard, California, gorging on nuptial ants

 

Plus, this lizard has an astonishing feature. They have a protein in their blood that kills the bacterium in the tick that causes Lyme’s Disease.

 

Ticks often feed on lizards’ blood, including the deer tick that carries Lyme’s Disease. When the deer tick feeds on the western fence lizard, the bacterium is killed. My chances of getting Lyme’s Disease are considerably less because of this  lizard.

 

We also have the alligator lizard, named for their resemblance to alligators. They are skittish and infrequent, but when they appear, it is a highlight of the day.

Northern Alligator Lizard, California

Our third reptile is the western skink. They are almost always hidden, their predator list is long. I’ve learned to recognize their sound when they rustle beneath leaves; so if I wait nearby, I sometimes see them.

 

Western skink, Calif.

 

Some lizards, like the skink, move like a snake. They have short legs and wiggle and slither. But most lizards are quadrupedal and move with an alternating gait. Another thing I love about lizards…watching them walk or run, a kind of reptilian sashay that says “attitude” to me.

Nile Monitor, Botswana

 

The marine iguana, the only underwater lizard in the world, lives on the Galapagos Islands. I’ve been snorkeling when they entered the water–that’s a strange thing, to be snorkeling with a large lizard. A true thrill. They sneeze out the sea salt when they return to land.

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

Lizards bask in the sun, leap through the air, let go of their tail if it’s in the jaws of a predator, and effortlessly change colors. I wouldn’t mind having all of these features, but since I cannot, I’m happy to watch…maybe I’ll learn something.

Written by Jet Eliot
Photos by Athena Alexander

 


Frill-necked lizard, Australia

 

Golden Tegu Lizard, Trinidad

 

Human-sized Birds

Southern Cassowary, Queensland, Australia

There are four bird species on the planet that are as tall as humans: the Ratites. They are all flightless.

 

Birds that are classified as ratites are so-named from the Latin ratis, for raft. A raft is a vessel that has no keel, and a ratite is a bird that has no keel. In bird anatomy, feather muscles attach to the keel or sternum (breastbone); and if there is no keel, the bird is flightless.

Emu, Mareeba Wetlands, Queensland

In an earlier era, there were more ratites on earth. Today there are these four tall species–ostrich, emu, cassowary, rhea–and New Zealand’s dwindling population of small ratites, the kiwis.

 

Ratite Wikipedia

Southern Cassowary adult with chicks, Queensland, Australia

They date back 56 million years, and look as prehistoric as they are–large round bodies on long legs, with long necks.

 

Ratites have two- or three-toed feet, often used for kicking, and lay very large eggs, the largest in the world. Omnivores, they prefer roots, seeds, and leaves; but will also eat insects or small animals if necessary. They have wings but do not fly, and instead run at very fast speeds.

Ostrich, male, East Africa

Ostrich. The largest and heaviest land bird in the world…and also the fastest. With strong legs, they can sprint up to 43 miles per hour (70 kph), and maintain a steady speed of 31 mph (50 kph).

 

They also have the largest eyes of any land invertebrate. With their excellent eyesight, nine foot height (2.8m), and sprinting abilities, ostriches have many ways to escape African predators.

Ostrich Pair, resting, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

We usually found them in the tall African grass in small groups of three and four. They disappeared quickly whenever our jeep approached, running with long strides.

 

Emus can only be found in Australia. They are the second-largest bird, after the ostrich, reaching up to 6.2 feet tall (1.9m). They were prominent in ancient Aboriginal mythology, and remain revered in Australia today as the national bird.

Australian Coat of Arms, emu on right

Emus at Mareeba Wetlands

One sizzling day on a remote preserve in Mareeba, Queensland, we were visited by a group of four emus. We were under shade, looking out at the dusty, deserted landscape when an emu soundlessly approached from around the corner. We remained still, waiting to see what would happen.

 

Then another one came along, and two more. They had their heads down, nibbling, walking around in search of food.

 

They stayed so long that eventually we moved on.

 

Cassowary.  Another Australian ratite, they can also be found in New Guinea, Indonesia, and a few nearby islands…but there are very few left in the world. This is the third tallest bird in the world, after ostrich and emu.

 

Southern Cassowary, male, Australia

While many of the cassowary features are similar to the aforementioned ratites, its unique head casque, made of keratin, is exclusive. They are also the most brightly colored of the four tall ratites, and most dangerous, known to kill humans with their blade-like foot claw.

 

Every Australian we talked to said they had never seen a cassowary and we wouldn’t either.

 

Not only did we see one, we saw several, and one experience was more than memorable, it was terrifying.

Daintree Cassowary Crossing

We were in the rainforest with our guide when a male cassowary approached us. For about one minute he was unperturbed. Then he started walking slowly around in a circle with stiff legs, sort of stomping. Our guide, in a calculated calm voice quietly said, “It’s time to leave.”

 

Although we backed up and gave the cassowary his space, the bird advanced. The guide whispered his instructions: do not turn your backs, do not run. So we continued backing up–Athena, the guide, and I. But the cassowary continued advancing.

 

Our guide quickly tried something else. He stood beside a large tree, forming a sort of shield; told us to continue backing up behind his shield. We backed ourselves out of the forest and waited for the guide. Ten long minutes later, the guide joined us.

 

We didn’t know it, but apparently we were near the cassowary’s hidden ground nest.

 

The rhea is the only tall ratite I have not seen. Grassland birds that look much like the ostrich and emu, rheas live in different parts of South America.

Greater rhea pair arp.jpg

Greater Rhea. Photo Adrian Pingstone. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

There might be a day when I see a rhea in the wild, and then I will have the privilege of saying I’ve seen all four human-sized ratites.

 

But I’m in no hurry for this, because I’ve had so many exhilarating ratite experiences…enough to last me a lifetime.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander, except rhea

Australian Emu