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

 

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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

 

African Safari: The Big Five

Leopard, Zambia

It is a pleasure to share highlights of the classic “Big Five” animals of the African savannah: leopard, elephant, lion, rhinoceros, and buffalo. Here are a few personal experiences I have had with the Big Five.

 

In an earlier era they were so-named because they were the five most challenging animals to shoot. Fortunately, the trophy game hunters are the minority these days.

 

Most safari visitors of today cherish these animals; and the only capture is simply via cameras.

 

Elephant cow and calf, Botswana

Lion, Botswana

Most of us know about the ongoing problems with habitat destruction and unprecedented poaching. To read about it, here is a New York Times article: The Big Five. 

 

White Rhinos, Kenya, Africa

 

Leopard, Okavango Delta, Botswana

1. The African Leopard. A cat of extreme stealth and strength, the leopard hunts primarily at night. With a diet that is least particular of all African carnivores, they have been found to have 30 different prey species in Serengeti National Park alone. In addition, they will attack and take down an animal three times their size.

Leopard Pair, Zambia

I came to breakfast one morning, wondering about a sound I had heard right outside our tent during the night, asked the guide at our table. He stopped eating his scrambled eggs, and proceeded to make one animal sound after another, pausing between each one. It was an impressive, and amusing, repertoire.

 

When he made the gruff sound of a rhythmic saw going back and forth through a piece of wood, I piped, “That’s it.”

He replied, “Leopard.”

Leopard, Zambia

Leopard kill prey so big they cannot always eat them at once, and often cache it in a tree for later consumption. Sometimes, they can be found in the tree during the day, sleeping.

 

Leopard Wikipedia.

 

African Elephants, Zambia

2. African Elephant. What I like best about this behemoth: watching them use their trunks in a myriad of ways; listening to their steady breathing and conversations; and watching a herd of cow elephants teach their young. Their enormous size, and trumpeting signals, rate high on my list of thrills, too.

African elephant, grey heron, Zambia

African elephant, Zambia

Elephants, Tanzania, Africa

 

Elephant juvenile, Botswana

African elephant, Zambia

Elephants sparring, Chobe River, Botswana

Elephant Wikipedia.

 

3. African Lion. The first time I saw a wild lioness, she took my breath away. The golden eyes and her lustrous coat were stunning to look at; but it was the courage and confidence of her swagger that has remained with me.

Lioness, Botswana

Serengeti Sunrise, lionness

Lion cubs, Serengeti

In lion prides, the lioness is the hunter, and there is much to learn from her wisdom. So many times we watched a lioness stalking prey, quietly sneaking up, and ready to prance. And then, more often than not, she subsequently aborted the mission.

 

Lionesses are constantly strategizing the potential for success in each endeavor–if the expenditure is more than the prize, she will do nothing and move on, confident of a better opportunity.

Lioness contemplating buffalo, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

Lion, Botswana

We often came upon lions in the morning, after they’d had a night of successful hunting. They laid in shade or by a pond with full bellies, sleepy eyes, and fresh wounds.

 

Lioness, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

Lion Wikipedia.

 

4. African Rhinoceros. Seeing a rhino in the wild is a thing of the past, due to illegal poaching that has drastically reduced their populations. But there are still some parks where they are fiercely protected.

White Rhino Family, Kenya

Rhinos are unique-looking, with their heavy, barrel-shaped bodies on short legs, two horns, and prehistoric presence. There are two African species, the white and black; and neither are white nor black, but varying colors of gray and brown.

 

It is the white rhino, a grazer, we see on safaris and photographed here.

Rhinoceros Wikipedia.

 

Buffalo, Zambia

5. African Buffalo. I shiver just looking at photos of this beast. Their prominent horns cover much of the face, measuring up to 40 inches across (100cm), used for hooking and goring.

 

They are grazers, like the white rhino, so you often come across them in the savannah grass. How many times we have come around a corner in the jeep to find a buffalo herd hidden in the tall grass or behind a few shrubs. Every single time, my heart jumps for an instant.

Buffalo herd, Botswana

Serengeti Elephant and Buffalo

Buffalo herd, Zambia

Their non-human predators are few: the crocodile and the lion. Who but a lion would take on the buffalo…and win.

 

African Buffalo Wikipedia

 

Thanks for joining us on safari. Or in Swahili, it is “Asante” (thank you).

 

Written by Jet Eliot

All photos by Athena Alexander

Athena, Zambia

Jet in purple shirt, Zambia

Countries where you can see all of the Big Five, per Wikipedia: Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Uganda, Namibia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Malawi.

 

Spring in the Sierras

Sierras overlook, California

Every season  in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is full of wonder and beauty, and right now the glories of spring are everywhere.

 

This mountain range reaches north-south, spanning 400 miles (640 km) on the eastern side of California. See map below. The Giant Sequoias, the largest trees in the world; Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous U.S.; and Yosemite National Park, are a few remarkable features of the Sierra Nevadas.

 

Two weekends ago we visited the northern section of the Sierras, near Lake Tahoe and Gold Country.

 

Bear River Falls, Discovery Trail, CA (Bernese Mountain Dog, named Storm, soaking in one of his favorite places, friends’ dog)

In the upper alpine elevations there was reportedly still snow on the ground. Lower, in the montane forests where these photos were taken, the last snow fell two months ago and is gone now…and the woodlands are waking up.

Ponderosa Pine

The rivers and waterfalls boisterously cascaded with frigid, clear, mountain water — snow melt from the peaks. Most of California’s water supply depends on this snow melt, so it’s always great to see the spring waters running strong.

 

We hiked through mixed conifer forests where redwood, oak, pine, and fir trees towered overhead. Bigleaf maple trees had begun their seed production.

 

The understory was coming alive with wild dogwoods in different stages of leafing out, opening their tender white flowers, technically leaves. The yellow button flower in the center attracts insects, for pollination.

 

Wild Pacific Dogwood tree, Cornus nuttallii aka Mountain Dogwood

 

Pacific Dogwood flower

 

Bigleaf Maple

 

Deer Creek, CA

 

On the forest floor wildflowers were bursting through the needle duff. Wild trillium were a special find, and clumps of bleeding hearts, abundant. The gooseberries, a type of currant, will be a tasty treat for forest mammals and birds.

Wild Trillium

Wild Bleeding Hearts, Dicentra formosa

Wild Gooseberry, Ribes

 

Caterpillars, birds and reptiles were emerging, vibrating with life. They have much to do to prepare for the new season.

Belted Kingfisher

 

Springtime doesn’t last too long in the Sierras, but when it’s here, life is vibrant.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Sierra Nevada map.png

California and the Sierra Nevadas. Graphic courtesy Wikipedia.

 

The Berry-Searching Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing in Madrone Tree, Calif.

Here’s a songbird we have in abundance in the U.S., and they are personally one of my favorite American birds. Always in search of berries, the cedar waxwing is often found flying in flocks.

 

They live and breed in North America, are also found in Central America and parts of South America.   See map below.

 

One of North America’s most stunning native birds, they have a sleek black eye mask, bright yellow tail tip, tidy crest, and a lemony belly. To add to their elegance, the feathers are silky-looking in gentle shades of tan and gray. They are named for the red tips that adults have on some feathers–look like they’re dipped in red wax.

 

Cedar Waxwing flock over San Francisco Bay

A medium-sized bird, with a diet of berries and insects, they can be found in gardens, orchards, suburbs, cities, towns, and rural countrysides…wherever there are berries.

 

Many people who are relatively familiar with common songbirds, have never heard of the cedar waxwing. That is probably because this bird does not visit feeders, and they are often quiet.

Cedar Waxwing flock

I have been enamored of cedar waxwings for over two decades, and I still stop in my tracks when I hear them overhead, look for the flock. Parking lots, town centers, berry-lined highways.

 

I like to point this bird out to friends who are not into birds. In response, the friend will look up, unimpressed, and say, “Hmm,” because all they’re seeing is another brown bird flying by.

 

Next I show my friend a close-up photo of the bird, and then they are wowed, and want to see the bird again. Often they say, “What’s it called again?” in earnest interest.

 

Cedar Waxwing juvenile

A gregarious bird, cedar waxwings are rarely seen alone. Sometimes you will see them foraging in small flocks, often in large flocks. Congregating in the sky much like starlings or blackbirds, small flocks join up  with other small flocks until there are hundreds of them flying in one graceful, swerving cloud.

 

Lately there’s been a flock of 500 that zooms by our balcony dozens of times a day. They like the cotoneaster shrubs in the landscaping.

 

More info at Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

 

 

Other than a high-pitched thin whistle call that is out of hearing range for many people, they are quite silent as the flock synchronistically descends into a berry tree, shaking the branches, and plucking the fruit.

 

What a thrill to look up and see a bouquet of these chic birds dancing the skies.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Cedar Waxwing-rangemap.png

Cedar Waxwing range map. Courtesy Wikipedia. Yellow=breeding; Green=Year-round; Blue=Wintering

 

The World of Bird Nests

Yellow Warbler adult on nest, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

When we think of bird nests, our minds often default to the typical cup-shaped grass nest. But there are many different kinds of nests, built at all times of the year, all over the world–here is a glimpse.

 

Some birds are obvious in their nest-building, like colonies of frigatebirds with their nests perched in shrubs on the protected Galapagos Islands. Colonies use the power of community for protection.

 

Nesting Frigatebirds, Galapagos Islands, North Seymour Island

Other birds are more stealthy in their nest locations, and nest individually.

 

One of the secrets to spotting bird nests is watching bird behavior–you may see them carrying nesting materials in their bills or talons, like grass or twigs.

Savannah Sparrow, California

 

Although spring is the typical time of year for nesting, some parts of the world do not have defined seasons, nesting occurs year-round.

 

Flightless Cormorant pair on nest with juvenile in center, Galapagos Islands

 

More info: Wikipedia Bird Nests

 

Every bird species nests differently, depending on the birds’ abilities and environments. Woodpeckers, for example, have sharp chisel-like bills and a cranium for withstanding powerful drilling; they carve holes in tree trunks. Conversely, hummingbirds collect spider silk and lichen in their pinpoint bills, and quietly weave a petite nest.

 

Grass is one material birds will use, but there are many other materials. Last week we looked at Mud-Nesting Swallows. Birds like the black noddy use guano, some use saliva.

 

Black Noddy guano nest, Heron Island, Australia

 

Cup nests consist of grass and other available materials like leaves, pine needles, moss, feathers, plant fluff, bark and twig pieces–and they come in all sizes.

 

American Robin nest, Wisconsin

 

Hummingbird nest, Costa Rica

 

Large birds, like raptors or swans, build platform nests. Grebes build floating platforms.

 

Cooper’s Hawk nest, California

 

Mute swan on marsh nest with cygnets

 

Nest Overview. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Pendant nests are another interesting architecture. Oropendulas and caciques design their nests to hang from trees.

Montezuma Oropendola on nest, Belize

Oropendola nests, Peru

 

Yellow-rumped Caciques on nests, Trinidad

 

Cavity nesters prefer to nest in a hole. This can be achieved in a number of ways: using the abandoned tree hole of a previous nest, or crafting a new one, or taking up residence in a human-provided nest box.

Western Bluebird at nest box, California

Many birds nest in cavities–woodpeckers, chickadees, bluebirds, to name a few. In North America there are about 85 cavity-nesting species.

Article: Birds that Nest in Cavities

 

In the United States, house wrens are known for taking up residence in all sorts of unusual places.

House wren with nest (under rusty globe)

 

I have watched birds build the perfect abode, but have also seen sloppily-made nests yielding disastrous results. One year this beam (below) worked well for the Pacific-slope flycatcher; another year the defenseless nestlings came tumbling out onto the deck. So the next year we provided her with a nesting platform box, which was a resounding success.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher on nest

Pacific-slope Flycatcher mother nesting in platform box we put up for her.

 

Many birds prefer tree trunks, limbs, snags, or other natural venues.

Great Horned Owl and owlet on nest, California

 

And then there are birds who do not use nests at all. Penguins keep their eggs nestled around their feet, preferring mobility and en masse body heat for nesting in harsh temperatures.

 

Many seabirds, who often only spend time on land for breeding, build their nests in rock crevasses, or ledges, or on remote ocean islands. I have spent many vacations trekking to isolated places to observe breeding seabirds.

Common Murre nesting colony, Alaska

 

Blue-footed Booby on nest (note the egg), Galapagos Islands

 

There are birds who simply lay their eggs on the ground,  called “scrape” nesting. It is usually a shallow depression, sometimes (but not always) lined with a little vegetation. There are a surprising number of birds who lay eggs in this precarious manner–most shorebirds and terns, many ducks, and more. Many eggs are shaped to not roll.

Western Gull on nest, California

 

Flamingos nest on mounds, to keep their brood above fluctuating water levels. Kingfishers, bee-eaters, and others prefer ground burrows.

White-fronted Bee-eater, burrow nests, Zambia, Africa

 

Wedge-tailed Shearwater chick on burrow nest, Kilauea Point, Kauai, Hawaii

 

Bowerbirds build bowers to attract mates–elaborate monuments. Found in Australia and New Guinea, they are known for gathering all kinds of curious objects to attract a mate. Satin Bowerbirds find blue items attractive, and the male sprinkles whatever blue he can find around his bower. After the female and male pair up, they build a nest, separate from the bower.

Satin Bowerbird bower, Queensland, Australia

 

Weaver birds are some of the most remarkable nest builders, often displaying craftsmanship to attract a mate. A finch-like bird found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, weavers are named for their magnificent nest-building talents.

 

A post I wrote: Weaver Nests.

Donaldson-Smith Sparrow Weaver and nest, Samburu, Kenya

Weaver nest, Zambia

Wherever we are in the world, with whatever kind of bird, we see parents working away at building a safe place for their offspring. This is a vital role, and a sweet and heartwarming event to observe.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

All photos by Athena Alexander

 

Pacific-slope flycatcher nest with eggs, California

Pacific-slope Flycatcher nestlings, ten days later from above-photo.  California