So Many Elephant Seals

It was a chilly but sunny day last week when we had the fortune of spending time with a colony of elephant seals.

There are only about a dozen spots in the world where northern elephant seals breed, and Point Reyes in Northern California is one of them.

They spend most of their lives at sea, only coming to land for breeding.

At Point Reyes, the bulls (males) arrive in December and the cows (females) arrive in January.

The pups had recently been born and there was a bonanza of excitement on the day we visited, with this colony numbering over 120 individuals spread out across the short beach.

There were mostly mothers and pups, and a couple dozen bulls made their presence known.

There were orange barricades up, keeping people at a distance to protect the seals; and this sign, below, with the seal count. We were on the southwest side of Drakes Beach at the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center.

Always with elephant seals, the first thing you are instantly aware of is their gargantuan size. The bulls are noticeably larger, but the cows are also formidably large.

Quick Facts from National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration:

Weight: 1,300 – 4,400 pounds (590-1,996 kg)

Length: 10-13 feet (3-4 m)

Adult male elephant seals have a large inflatable nose, or proboscis, that overhangs the lower lip resembling an elephant trunk, thus its name. The proboscis is his tool for amplifying sounds in female competitions.

Mirounga angustirostris nearly went extinct in the late 1800s from over-harvesting. Their blubber is oil-rich. They had been absent from Point Reyes for more than 150 years; then in the 1970s elephant seals returned to the Point Reyes beaches, and in 1981 a breeding pair was discovered.

They are protected now and the California population is continuing to grow at around 6% per year.

More info:

Northern Elephant Seal Wikipedia and Northern Elephant Seals National Park Service

As of last week, the mothers were still nursing and the pups, in that newborn way, were demanding, screaming.

You can see in the two photos below they are dark black and wrinkled, having been recently born.

This pup, below front, has learned how to sit up.

The pups would scream and whimper for a few minutes, and then figure out how to get over to their mother for sustenance.

The mothers were laid out, soaking up the sunshine. I liked watching this mother, below, who was apparently hot. Every once in a while she languidly dug her front flipper into the sand and swept some cooling sand onto her back. You can see the morsels of sand on her back and the depression she has made in the sand on the right.

You can also see her whiskers in this photo (above). Living at sea for most of their days and foraging at great depths, elephant seals use these whiskers (aka vibrissae) to fish in complete darkness, sensing the location of prey.

Often a little itch was scratched with the flipper claws.

The bulls were fun to watch too. Occasionally one would awake and prop himself up, lifting the front of his body, and proclaiming his superiority with a territorial roar or two. There were rumblings and roars that always turned my head.

But every single time I watched, it was all more bluster than anything. They are so heavy and awkward on land, they would plop across the sand for about three steps and then collapse, lay back down and go to sleep.

I’ve read that males have brutal fights in their hierarchical society, but we were witnessing a different stage of life when there were few males and the females were busy with pups.

There was an overflow lagoon where a few males swam around. You can see a male in the photo below, just right of the center.

This male, below, hauled out of the lagoon and found himself a comfortable spot in the parking lot.

Crashing waves, brisk winds, briny sea aromas, and squawking gulls are all a thrill when we go to the beach on a winter day. Watching active elephant seals–roaring, nursing or squealing–and it all makes for an absolutely super day.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

A Walk in the Rainforest

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

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

More info Nature Conservancy Belize Rainforest

More info Wikipedia Belize

Let’s go for our walk.

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

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

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

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

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

This is a colony of leafcutter ants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post I wrote on the Baird’s Tapir

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

And voila–a beauty arrived.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light helps with distinguishing the camouflaged wildlife, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

North American River Otters

It was a mild day in Northern California when we spotted the river otters, a pair.

With the barrage of storms we have been experiencing in California recently, spotting wildlife or even getting into wildlife refuges has proven challenging. Fortunately we had visited before the storms, in December.

We were at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge up on a wildlife viewing deck overlooking the refuge, spotting birds. Ducks, waders and geese were occupying the marsh, as usual; some were tucked in and sleeping, others were foraging.

This yellow-rumped warbler joined us, like they do every time we go on this deck.

Then all of a sudden, several dozen ducks all lifted simultaneously from the water–a wave and a lot of fluttering.

There was no sign of what had caused the clamor. There are no roads or humans in this area (photo below), it’s nothing but birds and marsh grass on this huge expanse.

Right away they settled back down.

But then a moment later it happened again. It was a different wave of birds lifting, also suddenly and dramatically. Just as I was putting my binoculars up to investigate, a man on the deck said to us, “Do you see the otters?”

Then we had the wildest surprise: two river otters were chasing the ducks!

It happened three or four more times, and then the otters waddled onto a strip of land, partially hidden behind tule reeds.

More info about this largest member of the weasel family: Wikipedia North American River Otter

Perfectly suited for water, river otters have short legs and a long, narrow body. Their swimming is graceful gliding.

They are not, however, aquatic mammals–they are semi-aquatic, spending much time on land. Four short little legs may work well in the water, and getting in and out of the water is a breeze, too. They effortlessly slide in and out of the water.

But when they’re walking on land, they are awkward, kind of hopping and waddling.

They were in and out of the tall weeds for a little while, each one preening.

Then they came out of the reeds, and we could see them better. They were about 500 feet (152 m) away.

We watched for as long as they were there and after about five minutes they disappeared, and everything settled down.

Lontra canadensis prefer a diet of fish and crayfish, but they are adaptive to seasonal availability and also consume crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians, small mammals and even reptiles. They do occasionally eat small birds including ducks.

Were they intending to eat a duck in all that hoopla? Is that why they were chasing them?

I don’t think so. I think they were just frolicking, having a bit of fun.

Three years ago in this same refuge but miles away, we watched a trio of river otters fishing. They were in a deep ditch filled with rainwater (photo below) and would go down under the dark water and come up with a flopping fish in their teeth, eat it, and then dive back down again. They did this for at least a half hour–focused and successful.

You can see the otter’s long facial whiskers in this photo. The whiskers are long, stiff and highly sensitive, aid in locating and capturing prey in the darkest of waters. There’s also a fish in its mouth.

This pair we saw last month, they were doing the river otter dance, having some fun, showing off their prowess.

River otters–so fun to watch–sliding and diving, playing and hopping. They make me wanna dance.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Winter Waterfowl Migration

Northern California is in quite a storm stir this week and last, as many of you have probably seen on the news. Here’s a look at the winter bird migration before the storms began.

In mid-December we visited two wildlife refuges in the Sacramento Valley and it was fantastic, as always.

Since then, blustery storms have battered this area with heavy winds, toppling trees, relentless flooding, mudslides and broken levees. Much of the state has been devastated.

But let’s go back to December and take a look at a pleasant, mild day in the Sacramento Valley.

In addition to several bald eagles at the refuge, many other raptors greeted us that December day–plenty of red-tailed hawks, some red-shouldered hawks, and a few northern harriers.

Northern California, the Pacific Flyway. The migrating birds fly down from the continent’s northern regions and spend the winter in the Sacramento Valley, typically from November through February. Then they fly back north for breeding during the warm months.

The Pacific Flyway is shown on the map below in green, along North America’s west coast.

Courtesy Wikipedia

You can see from the map that there are three other flyways across the country/continent as well. Bird migrations occur all across the world.

More info about Flyways from Wikipedia.

For 30 years Athena and I have visited the Sacramento Valley every winter to observe the migration. Amazingly, it is always different.

At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge this time there was less water in the ponds, less geese; but the water levels of course have since dramatically changed with the onslaught of recent storms.

At the time they were experiencing an extreme drought, consequently many of the rice fields that attract the birds had had the water redirected into municipal water reservoirs.

Hard to imagine now, with rainstorms raging every day, that a few weeks ago we were in a severe drought.

The birds in biggest numbers on the Pacific Flyway are always geese and ducks.

The predominant goose species is snow geese (see first photo), but there are also many thousands of white-fronted geese (photo below).

There are thousands of ducks. We were happy this time to see the northern shovelers and green-winged teals in bright light, showing off their vibrant features. Often there is thick fog, but not that day.

Northern shovelers, so named for their shovel-shaped bills, were in abundance.

Green-winged teals, one of America’s most beautiful ducks, boast a variety of colors with emerald highlights.

Wading birds were predictably present including great blue herons, great and snowy egrets, black-necked stilts and white-faced ibis.

Often the ibis appear just black, but with a day of sunshine we had the full effect of their magically iridescent feathers. Green, maroon, brown. Their colors actually change as you watch them walk, depending on how the sun is striking.

When it comes to sporting colors, the ring-necked pheasant is a showstopper. There was a brief three seconds before he vanished in tall grass.

There are always plenty of songbirds here, too. Yellow-rumped warblers, scrub jays, and sparrows were prevalent, and the two special songbirds of the day were the western meadowlark and American pipit.

This photograph below shows bits of mud on the meadowlark’s bill where he or she had been probing. They seek wide open spaces of native grassland and agricultural fields for foraging.

American pipits, below, are in the songbird family, but I have never heard them sing. They come here to our mild climates for the winter in their nonbreeding plumage. They don’t sing until they go back home to the Arctic tundra and alpine meadows where they breed and nest.

Although you wouldn’t guess it by the plain and drab brown markings, this bird is a jewel for birders like us. Unlike sparrows, we don’t see a lot of the pipits.

At the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge about 20 minutes away, we were happy to find these black-crowned night herons in their usual place. They are more active at dusk; during the day they are nestled in bare trees, and few are moving.

On the auto route, this colony of black-crowned night herons doesn’t look like much from the car. I often see cars drive by without noticing the herons at all. To the untrained eye I suppose it looks like bits of trash in the weeds.

But a good pair of binoculars or a powerful camera lens bring this stately heron into better view.

We also had some fun sightings of river otters at the refuge that day.

These days I am feeling a bit like a river otter myself here in stormy northern California–slipping in the mud and constantly wet. Although more storms are expected, I’m hoping my fine pelt continues to protect me and that next Friday I’ll have entertaining stories to bark about.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

People in the World, Part 2 of 2

Welcome back to Part 2 of my people-watching tour…this time in the western hemisphere.

As I explained in Part 1, my wife and I have had a couple decades of observing wildlife in different parts of the world. We go to faraway places, usually in tropical locations where there tend to be more birds and mammals. After our plane lands in the big city, we make our way into the small towns, villages and rural areas to observe and photograph wildlife…and enjoy the people too.

These are some of the people we have literally encountered along the way–many photos are snapped through a van window as we’re driving through town. Small local villages, schools, homes and markets.

Featured here are Peru, Mexico and Belize.

PERU.

We spent about a week in motorized canoes cruising an Amazon tributary and camping in the rainforest.

We often saw small villages on the river’s edge. In the second photo below, the villagers had harvested bananas and we’re preparing them for market.

In contrast to the humidity and heat of the Amazon River Basin, farmers in the Andes mountains grow potatoes and grains at high altitudes.

This woman, below, is heading back to the farm, potatoes on her back. The potato originated in Peru over 8,000 years ago and remains a staple here. There are also grain crops visible here, the purplish-red patch (center left) is quinoa.

These potato farmers, below, are selling their crop at a village market.

One morning we were driving through this town below where the local market was bustling with residents. You can see how the Andes Mountains in the background tower over the town.

Nearby, the children were gathering for a day of school. Across the street the little children were jumping around a parked truck filled with citrus fruit, looked like tangerines; and the bigger kids, below, were engaging with their teacher outside the school.

In larger towns we would often see stone steps and houses built into the mountainsides. The blue “flags” (center right) in this residential alley indicate where corn alcohol can be purchased.

MEXICO.

One year we journeyed to a small Mexican town, San Blas, for birding. A coastal state, Nayarit. We had arranged online with a recommended local birding guide for several days of birding together. The guide, Armando, did not drive so his friend Lupe, who was a taxi driver, drove.

We drove all over the town and countryside in a yellow taxi…had so much fun.

Armando had a penchant for fried pork rinds so every day we stopped along the way for those. He knew where to find good food. One day he took us to a local eatery, a canvas-covered plot in a banana plantation where we ate exceptionally delicious food and hand-made tortillas made to order.

In many of the small towns there were large barbecue grills selling savory hot food on the street.

We did a lot of birding in the plantations. While we were focused on a large flock of little green parrotlets, this man walked by, below, on his way to pick coffee berries very early one morning.

We also spent a lot of time on and around the San Blas River spotting pelicans, herons and other waders.

Several local families, like this one below, were frequently enjoying a day on the water.

BELIZE.

Belize is a Central American country bordering the Caribbean Sea, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras and has a wide array of ethnic groups and cultures. Per Wikipedia: “Belize has a diverse society that is composed of many cultures and languages that reflect its rich history.”

One of our destinations was Lamanai, an archaeological site, to spot birds and howler monkeys. Out in the country we came across a village of Mennonite farmers. There are about 12,000 Mennonite residents in Belize, originating from various places but primarily of Russian heritage.

More info: Mennonites in Belize, Wikipedia.

It happened to be Sunday and we came across much of the village on the road. Each family was in a buggy pulled by a horse, their horses in a gentle trot toward church. Below is the parking area of the rural church we passed.

Hours later, as we entered the rainforest trail, spotting birds, bats and howlers, this group of Mennonites walked by us. The men walked in one group (in front), and the women and children followed. They were taking the day off from work.

Days later in a different area, we drove through Belize’s capital, Belmopan, as school was letting out.

We also spent several days at a large lagoon spotting snail kites, raptors and waders, Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary.

Our guide, Glen, grew up around here and seemed to know everyone. Here he is (below, in front) with his cousin who was out in his yard cleaning the fish he had caught that day. There’s an opportunistic cat, too.

That wraps up the series People in the World. It’s a big world, a very big world, with many different types of people, cultures, and lifestyles.

And yet, as it goes, we are all very much the same.

Happy Holidays to you, my friends. Thanks for joining me this year, see you next year!

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

People in the World, Part 1 of 2

As we wrap up 2022, I end this year’s posts with a two-part series featuring fellow humans I have glimpsed throughout my travels.

All of the destinations in our travels are with one thing in mind: to visit wilderness habitats where we can spot wild mammals and birds. We go to out-of-the-way places observing wildlife.

Humans are not the focus, but of course we find humans along the way. They lead the way. I love humans too; they are, after all, my species.

Although my partner and I like many different places on this planet, Africa is our favorite. We have visited five countries.

While every one of the 54 countries in Africa are different, we found similarities in the people.

One similarity: there are many villages in Africa. The three photos below reflect villages in Botswana, Kenya, and Zambia.

Of course Africa has many large cities and towns as well. We gravitate towards wilderness, so villages and small towns were where we spent the most time.

Livingstone, below, is a city of 134,000 people located on the southern Zambia border. It is near Victoria Falls, a popular tourist destination and therefore a bigger establishment.

Another similarity among the African countries, like every country in the world, is that locals congregate around the markets where they buy and sell wares.

There are market photos throughout this post.

Also evident in much of Africa: many folks walk. They walk everywhere. This family, below, just bought groceries in Livingstone and are carrying them home.

Below is a border crossing at Zambia/Botswana in southern Africa. We went through Customs here four times, and there was always a lot going on–a lively, animated place.

Until last year, crossing the Zambezi River, another border, was tricky because relations between Zambia and Botswana had been strained for so long that they never built a bridge to cross the river.

These villagers in the photo below are waiting their turn for the ferry, to cross the Zambezi to shop and sell; some people work on the other side of the river every day. The ferry was very crowded. I stood on the deck eye-to-eye with a man’s string mop.

Fortunately, the Kazungula Bridge was completed last year, providing another option now than just the ferry.

Transportation in African countries also had similarities. Vehicles are not owned by every adult, so in addition to pedestrians there are many bicycles and shared vehicles.

In the cities at morning rush hour, we often saw vans so full of people that their bodies were bursting out of it–some commuters holding on with one leg on the floorboard and one leg dangling in the wind.

This pick-up truck, below, could not have been any more loaded. Those big colored barrels on top are for carrying water.

This woman has a heavy load too, including her little one.

For locals who have the fortune to live near water, dugout canoes were a frequent scene despite hippo-studded waters. Fishermen make their living in canoes, and canoes are used for transportation as well.

All the bumps in the river below are hippos, except for the canoe with two men (at the bottom).

I hope you enjoyed these passing glimpses of African locals in their towns and villages. Next week we’ll cruise over to the Western Hemisphere.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Spectacular Coast Scenes

Last week was another great adventure to Point Reyes, but this time we explored the Lighthouse area. Here are some of the sights we savored that day.

Called Outer Point Reyes, this part of the peninsula extends 13 miles into the Pacific Ocean.

Usually it is dense with fog–wet fog obliterating every view; and gusting, buffeting winds so strong that you can’t stand still even if you tried.

Often when you stand at the top of these steps (below), you can’t even see the lighthouse. But not that day.

The first magical moment came when we were still in the parking lot. We were at the back of our car donning extra layers of clothes.

Far from any humans in a nearly empty parking lot, out of the blue a middle-aged man walked up to us. He said we might be interested in the whales. He’d been watching them for quite some time…”lots of spouts” out there.

Binoculars in hand, we walked to the overlook with him, facing out at the glorious expanse of the Pacific Ocean. He pointed out the spouts.

It was the most amazing sight! Over two dozen whale spouts silently shooting out of the sea.

Many of the spouts were difficult to photograph because they were so far away. But this photo below shows several.

Soon after, he drove off in his sports car.

Point Reyes is a marine sanctuary where gray whales can safely travel in their migration south. (Eschrichtius robustus)

They are headed for Baja California in Mexico where they will mate and give birth, and then return to the Arctic when the weather warms.

Sometimes a fluke breached the water, visible through binoculars.

We watched the whales for nearly an hour. Also saw a peregrine falcon soaring around the lighthouse, several turkey vultures, a wren and a busy black phoebe.

Next we ventured over to Drakes Bay to see if the elephant seals were at the overlook near Chimney Rock.

On the way, few cars were on the road, so wildlife were close.

We noticed the land mammals had thicker coats for the winter.

Another pleasant surprise greeted us at the elephant seal overlook: about a half-dozen elephant seals were frolicking and vocalizing. They are often seen sleeping soundly in the warmth of the sun…can easily be mistaken for driftwood.

But these were young males having some play time. These individuals have not yet acquired their enlarged noses that resemble elephant snouts or proboscis.

Brown pelicans, western grebes, various species of ducks and kelp seaweed were also in the water.

Turkey vultures, songbirds, ravens and flickers flew overhead.

Before heading home, we were treated to one last delight.

On the main road there are numerous dairy farms. Acres of pasture and herds of cows, a few ranches with barns and houses.

We were driving past a herd of dairy cows when we spotted three tule elk bulls quietly grazing beside the cows. All mammals were fenced in and safe from traffic. There is a tule elk preserve miles away; apparently they are escapees. Renegades. And so majestic.

Every day in the wilderness is one of beauty. Fog and wind are beautiful…rainy days are too. But occasionally a really special day comes along with sunny skies, tranquil moments, and a dazzling array of wildlife…extraordinary beauty.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Fresnel Lens Yesterday and Today

With the long, dark winter nights we’re experiencing in the Northern Hemisphere, it is a good time to celebrate the marvel of an invention that brought light to our world centuries ago, and still today.

Even before the first light bulb was invented, a powerful lens was invented.

It was a modern invention of the 1820s that revolutionized the sciences of light and marine navigation.

The lens design, created by a physicist, was maximized to capture light reflection and refraction. It is an array of prisms managing the mechanics of light, extending the light to then-unprecedented lengths.

The inventor, Augustin Fresnel (1788-1827), lived on the rugged west coast of France near Brittany, where tragic shipwrecks repeatedly occurred and human lives frequently perished. He invented the lens for lighthouses, to light up the coast more efficiently for ship captains to see what was in front of them. The first Fresnel lens was installed there, on the coast of France, in 1822.

A Fresnel lens could easily throw its light 20 or more miles.

France, and then Scotland, commissioned the lenses for lighthouses; eventually they spread across the world. The Fresnel lens came to U.S. lighthouses in the 1850s.

Prior to the Fresnel (pronounced fray-NEL) lens invention, oil lamps supplied the light and various inventions helped extend the light, but it was not enough to prevent shipwrecks.

I came upon this discovery not by navigating a ship along the coast, but by hiking on an island in the San Francisco Bay. Angel Island.

In the visitor center, a nearly two-foot glass structure shaped like a beehive was perched on a stand near the door–caught my attention.

I am one of those people who stops in their tracks for shadows and sunbeams, fascinated by reflections and refractions. And this giant piece of glass was winking up a storm at me.

It is 21.3 inches high (.54 m). Fresnel lenses come in different sizes, or orders. Both lenses in this post are 5th Order. 1st Order is the largest, 6th Order is smaller. Link for more info is below.

The original Fresnel lenses can often be seen in lighthouses, like this one at Point Robinson on Vashon Island in Washington. The lamp/lens is inside the lighthouse (below), visible underneath the red, cone-shaped roof.

Here is a closer look at the lens, with majestic Mount Rainier presiding in the background.

Though there are still Fresnel lenses in lighthouses today, the science has largely been replaced by navigational systems like radar and radio signal towers and global positioning systems (GPS).

There are many lighthouses that still have the original Fresnel lenses, most of which are no longer operational. Almost always the lens/lamp is there due to a concerted effort by maritime enthusiasts, volunteers, and donations. Today they are highly regarded and valuable treasures.

The United States Lighthouse Society has a website filled with information about U.S. lighthouses including two lists of lighthouses that have operational and non-operational Fresnel Lenses.

Link: Fresnel Lenses in the U.S.

Link: Operational Fresnel Lenses in the U.S.

Link: Wikipedia Fresnel Lens

Link: Augustin-Jean Fresnel Wikipedia

The magic of the Fresnel lens does not stop in the 1800s. Today working Fresnel lenses are found in spotlights, floodlights, railroad and traffic signals, emergency vehicle lights and more.

Photographers use them to illuminate a scene. Athena uses a Fresnel lens flash extender on her camera, especially when we are out birding on night walks or dark days. It is a flimsy plastic lens that attaches to the flash unit and extends the flash up to 300 feet (91 m).

She captured this scene below with her “Better Beamer” flash extender. We were in the Belizean rainforest when a spectacled owl had just snatched up a fer-de-lance snake and landed in a tree 200 feet away (61 m).

The Fresnel lens has been bringing light into this world for ages, whether it was preventing fatal shipwrecks two centuries ago or capturing dynamic owl scenes today. That is something to celebrate.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Land of the Hummingbird

As we head deeper into winter in the Northern Hemisphere, let’s take a few minutes to frolic in the tropics. Trinidad is called Land of the Hummingbird–here are some of the beautiful birds and butterflies we have seen there.

Trinidad is an island in the Caribbean Sea less than 10 miles (16km) off South America’s Venezuelan coast.

Read more about Trinidad here: Trinidad Wikipedia.

Although Trinidad’s primary industry is oil and gas, parts of the island are rainforest and plantations. You can see from this photo below how extensive the tree canopy is.

And now we will go below the canopy to find thriving birds in every color of the rainbow. We’ll start with a few of the hummingbirds.

We have 15 species of hummingbirds living in our very large country of America. In the small dual-island nation of Trinidad-Tobago, with an area of less than 2,000 sq. miles (5,131 km2), there are more hummingbird species than in all the U.S.: 18.

This hummingbird’s iridescent crown and gorget feathers lit up with a simple turn of his head in the perfect light. Its name is “copper-rumped”…but who’s looking at the rump?

Four additional hummingbird species are below; Blue-chinned Sapphire, White-necked Jacobin, Tufted Coquette, and White-chested Emerald.

This tufted coquette below, with his orange mohawk and polka dots, has bits of pollen on the end of his bill. He was tiny and zipping around at lightning speed…and very busy.

You may not be able to see it, but this white-chested emerald hummingbird has a bit of his tongue sticking out.

There were many native, red-flowered bushes on the trail (below), attractive to hummingbirds.

But it wasn’t just hummingbirds we found in Trinidad, there was an abundance of other colorful species as well.

Scarlet ibis live in Trinidad, roosting at night on small coastal islands. I wrote a post recently that included Trinidad’s scarlet ibis. Link: Celebrating Ibis.

And there were many honeycreeper species, too. In Hawaii, honeycreepers take the place of hummingbirds in the avian world. But in Trinidad they have both.

This male purple honeycreeper is absolutely show-stopping. I found it difficult to take the binoculars down and keep walking–I would stop and stare for the longest time.

And the female of the same species, often close by, is also colorful and beautiful. Green legs!

And then there’s the green honeycreeper which is another stunner. The bird’s name is “green” but it’s really turquoise.

With all the nectar plants around, there were of course butterflies. Interestingly, the two butterfly species below both have bird names: the owl butterfly and the scarlet peacock, below that.

The owl butterfly below is not as colorful as some butterflies, but the “eye” marking is easily discernable. Many scientists posit that the eyespot is an evolutionary tool of mimicry, resembling eyes of predators that hunt by sight; while others say the conspicuous contrast in markings deters predators.

It wouldn’t be right to highlight the wild nectar feeders without including at least one bat. Trinidad has approximately 70 bat species, an incredible amount.

One night at dusk we spotted a stream of bats flying out from under our lodge building. We went back every night thereafter for a bat bonanza.

And lastly, here are two songbirds to sing to you of the color and beauty here on earth.

The violaceous euphonia with his furry yellow forehead.

And the ubiquitous bananaquit, often found at our outdoor breakfast table trying to sneak a little sugar.

I hope this tickle of the tropics helped warm you, my friends.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

On the Dock of the Bay

Beautiful day at Bodega Bay, a spot in northern California that I gravitate to several times a year. Our visit earlier this month was highlighted by my dear sister and brother-in-law joining Athena, her camera, and me.

Upon our arrival, fishing boats were traversing the marked channels and fog horns pierced through the briny, moist air.

There is a commercial fish-cleaning dock I like to go to early when the fishing activity is bustling. We can usually find opportunistic sea lions vying for scraps thrown in the water.

This day we found two sea lions hauled out on the dock of the bay. They were sleepy, intertwined.

Common on our west coast, California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) are classified as eared seals in the Otariidae family. They’re called eared seals because they have visible ear flaps; seals don’t have these. You can see the “ears” in the next two close-ups.

I’ve read they can turn the flaps downward while swimming and diving, so water doesn’t enter their ears. They have hearing function both in air and under water.

California Sea Lions Wikipedia

Eventually one sea lion went for a swim. This sea mammal weighs several hundred pounds, and yet they manage to slip into the water almost soundlessly.

But the quiet ended there when the docked sea lion began barking very loudly…and went on for about five minutes.

This sleepy harbor seal dozed through all the commotion.

The bay is lively with birds, too.

By now the winter birds have migrated here from colder climes. Marbled godwits, a shorebird, and surf scoters, a sea duck, were two species we were celebrating that day, as we do not see them in most other months of the year. By March or so they will be heading back north.

Here are the marbled godwits (below). They are distinctive for their long, bi-colored bill.

Surf scoters are eye-catching with the male’s bright-colored bill, white eyes and white markings. Found all along our west coast in winter, they are large ducks, males measure at 19 inches long (48 cm).

Other bird species around the bay included western grebes, a few common loons and many herons and egrets. This snowy egret, below, found delicacies in tide-soaked sea grass.

There is a small pond by the bay where a gregarious flock of yellow-rumped warblers popped around. We’re lucky they spend their winters here on the west coast.

A five-minute drive up from the bay is a Pacific Ocean overlook called Bodega Head that offers hiking and gorgeous ocean views. Whales can be spotted from up here too, but not until about January.

The ocean rocks showcased brown pelicans, western gulls, Brandt’s and double-crested cormorants. A friendly birder with a scope gave us a distant view of a common murre, as black oystercatchers called from the rocks.

On the west coast we have black oystercatchers with a black belly, red bill and red eye; whereas the east coast has the American oystercatcher, a white-bellied bird.

The tide was low so we had the added pleasure of spotting a few sea stars clinging to the sides of the rocks (below).

We ate our packed lunch and watched the birds, humans and sea mammals as they foraged for sea life.

Then, after hours at the coast, it was time to head home. Fog horns continued their rhythmic warnings as we reluctantly drove off.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.