The Magical Pinyon Jay

Pinyon Jays, Nevada

Pinyon Jays, Nevada

I found a stunning but unfamiliar jay recently while visiting Nevada, and enjoyed numerous sightings of this new “lifer.”  As part of the Corvid family, pinyon jays are similar to other North American jays in size, shape, and color.  Though they do not have a crest, the pinyon jay is approximately 10 inches long, with an overall blue color.  But noticeably unlike other jay species, they are highly social, traveling in flocks of hundreds.

 

The distribution of Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus is in the western and southwestern United States, in foothills and lower mountain slopes.  They forage on the seed of the pinyon pine, but will also eat juniper or ponderosa pine seeds as well as berries, fruit, and insects.  With a very strong bill, they open the green pine cone and remove the seed.   In years when seed crops are low, they will relocate outside their home territory to other pine woodland forests.  Like other jays, they cache their seeds and have incredible spatial memories for recovering their hidden treasures.

 

Pinyon Jays, Nevada

Pinyon Jays, Nevada

In earlier eras the pinyon-juniper woodlands of the west were razed for cattle and agriculture production; the pinyon jay population dangerously dwindled.  Since the 1960s, their population has recovered somewhat, but conservation status is still threatened, and listed as vulnerable.

 

The first time I saw them we were driving on a dirt road to our Nevada lodge.  A gregarious flock landed in a nearby pinyon pine, dazzling us with flashes of blue.  As our stay at the lodge continued, we found them flying overhead in huge flocks, often on the ridges of the canyon, scattering into stands of pines.  Soon we came to know their call, a high-pitched mew; a striking sound that stopped us in our tracks as it echoed through the canyon.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

African Fish Eagle

African Fish Eagle, Botswana

African Fish Eagle, Botswana

I love this bird because it is powerful, self-sustaining, and abundant.  You can find it just about anywhere near a freshwater lake or river in sub-Saharan Africa.

 

Haliaeetus vocifer have special structures on their toes called spiricules to enable them to grasp fish.  I have seen many of these majestic eagles perched in tree snags beside a river or marsh, hunting for their namesake prey.  If they catch a fish that is too big to carry, they’ll drag the fish across the water’s surface to shore.  And if the fish is so heavy that it cannot be dragged, the eagle will drop into the water and use its wings to paddle to shore.  

 

I like that resolve!

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Tread Lightly

Black Oystercatcher, California coast

Black Oystercatcher, California coast

“It is our task in our time and in our generation to hand down undiminished to those who come after us, as was handed down to us by those who went before, the natural wealth and beauty which is ours.”  ~~ John F. Kennedy

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Exquisite Bird Sighting

Birdwatching, Amazon Basin, Peru, Canopy Tower

Birdwatching, Amazon Basin, Peru, Canopy Tower

We were deep in the Amazonian rainforest at Manu Biosphere.  It had taken us two days by motorized canoe on the Madre de Dios River, an Amazon tributary, to get here.

 

In this wild rainforest so far we had visited macaw leks, followed a group of wild peccaries through the mud, watched several capybara families, cruised past numerous caiman, and woke up every morning to the bellowing of howler monkeys.

 

That day it was raining harder than I ever knew possible.  It was as if someone was standing on the roof emptying buckets of water down on us.  At lunch our guides adjusted the day’s schedule due to the rain.  They gave us a choice:  go for a bird walk in the forest, or stay closer to the tents and do a botany walk around camp.

 

Seven of us chose to go birding.  A few tons of rain never hurt anybody.

 

The trails were pure mud; like walking on chocolate frosting.  To make it even more tricky, you could not touch the trees or vines because the ants were so ferocious.  Beware the bullet ant.

 

So we had to be nimble, focused, steady, and completely indifferent to the relentless rain.

 

About a half hour into the walk, we heard an alarming human scream echoing through the forest.  A man was shouting our guide’s name and other words in a foreign tongue.

 

We thought someone had been hurt.  People slip and fall, get bit, get sick all the time–so many potential dangers here.

 

Our guide listened; it was his native language.  His face lit up.  He said, “Come on.  We’ve got to be fast.  But be careful.”   In all this mud, we began to run.

 

The rain had subsided, but the mud was ankle deep and so slippery.  We still didn’t know for what we were running, but he assured us no one up ahead had been hurt.

 

Harpy Eagle in the same tree as us, Manu, Peru

Harpy Eagle in the same tree as us, Manu, Peru

Then we met up with the hollering guide.  He was guiding a group of tourists from Hong Kong.

 

Our guide finally told us what had been spotted:  a Harpy Eagle.  Even he, who had grown up here and led groups every week for decades, had never seen a Harpy.

 

Amazon Canopy Tower Staircase

Amazon Canopy Tower Staircase

We arrived at the canopy tower panting and breathless.  We still had to climb to a platform 200 feet up in a gigantic tree.

 

And when we got to the top, there he was.  One of the world’s biggest eagles and of near-threatened status, the harpy eagle is the largest and most powerful raptor in the Americas.

 

Ten feet away from us, on a tree limb, he was busy tearing apart an anteater.

 

Standing three and a half feet high, weighing approximately 20 pounds, the eagle was unconcerned with us.  With the largest talons of any living eagle, the Harpy Eagle routinely snatches mammals of 15 pounds or more and carries them to a tree limb to eat.

 

Harpia harpyja’s diet is primarily sloths and monkeys.  Tree-dwelling mammals are their favorite prey, but they also eat squirrels, armadillos, anteaters, porcupines, coatis, birds, and reptiles.  That should give you an idea of the size and power of this raptor.

 

This species lives in South America and Central America.   More info here.

 

Harpy Eagle Club (two guides in the front, me in the center middle) on canopy tower platform

Harpy Eagle Club on canopy tower platform. Two guides in front, me in center middle, Athena standing 2nd from left.

After the anteater had been completely devoured, the Harpy flew off.  He was so enormous we could watch him for another half hour as he perched in other trees, hunting.

 

Giddy and thrilled, we called ourselves “The Harpy Eagle Club” after that.

 

No one in our optic-active group had a camera that day, due to the extreme weather conditions.

 

Fortunately a Hong Kong tourist did.  His small group was not birders and even though they had just scored the luckiest bird of their lives, their interest in the eagle was only mild.

 

What they couldn’t take their eyes off of was the group of jubilant birders going wild at this incredible sighting.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander and Hong Kong tourist

 

The Song of the Ground Hornbills

Southern Ground Hornbill, Zambia

Southern Ground Hornbill, Zambia

An extraordinary bird, the Southern Ground Hornbill is as large as a turkey and its voice can be heard for over a mile.  They are usually seen in groups of 5-10 individuals slowly walking along the ground, foraging.  They eat reptiles, frogs, insects, hares and other small mammals.

 

My favorite part of this unique bird is the hollow sound it produces.  Field guides describe it as a deep booming “oomph,” but to this American it is the familiar sound of blowing into a Coke bottle.  If you are lucky enough to be near their territory, you can hear their resounding chorus of coke bottle tunes.  As it is very loud and deep, it can be a little intimidating if you don’t know what it is.  But once you know it, you can’t get enough of it.

 

They reside in the southern half of Africa but unfortunately their populations are declining.  Conservation status is listed as vulnerable, mainly due to loss of habitat.  Large efforts are underway to strengthen the population.  Fortunately these birds are on this earth a long time, up to 30 years in the wild.

 

Bucorvus leadbeateri can often be heard in the morning.  Almost every African safari I’ve been on we were out at the break of dawn; the safari vehicle still quiet with sleepy patrons.  What a thrill, then, to hear nothing but that deep, harmonic anthem reverberating through the grasslands.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Texas Wildlife

Texas,-Barred-OwlMy idea of a vacation is to be out in the wilderness as far away from people and as close to nature as possible. As an outdoorsy adjunct to a family visit in Houston, we stayed at a working ranch in the Texas countryside.

 

The fortunate delight of our isolated and rustic cabin was the beautiful barred owl whose territory we happened to occupy.  Every morning and every night we could always count on seeing him, and often at various other times throughout the day.  Not only was he stunning to observe and a skilled, silent flyer, but he was also a “lifer” for us–a bird we had never seen before.

 

Carolina Wren, Texas

Carolina Wren, Texas

Also outside our front deck was a Carolina Wren who frequently visited a hole in the nearest big tree.  After watching this wren just a short time, we soon discovered she was feeding a nest full of chicks.

 

Other gems we found nearby that we don’t see in California were the painted buntings (wow), northern cardinals (lovely), more wonderful birds, frogs, and turtles, and two snakes.

 

The first morning we went for a walk outside our cabin.  The grass was very tall in places, so we followed our instincts to stay on the path.  As we walked along, a startled water snake quickly unwound from his lakeside resting place and ducked into the water before we could get a photo.  He swam away and said “good day.”

Painted Bunting, Texas

Painted Bunting, Texas

 

Texas,-Snake

Texas size snake (not a garden hose)

At one point we were in the car on a road near our cabin when I said, “Stop the car!”  Of all the snakes I have seen all over this world, I saw snake behavior I had never seen before.  It was a very, very long snake flipping through the air.  By the time we got the car stopped, the snake was no longer tumbling.  He was moving away quickly, on the ground.

 

Although this isn’t a very good photo (it all happened so fast), you can at least see how very very long this critter is.  OMG!  The longest snake I have ever seen!  “Texas size” as they like to say in Texas…and they’re not kidding!

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Somewhere Under the Rainbow Lorikeet

Rainbow Lorikeet

Rainbow Lorikeet

We were at an outdoor café in Sydney that was completely hemmed in by tall buildings and tourists; it seemed impossible for a wild bird to be within five miles of this busy urban setting.  And then a rainbow lorikeet swooped in and snatched up a sugar packet from our bistro table.  We watched in comical disbelief as the bird flew up to an electrical wire overhead and skillfully emptied the sugar into his opportunistic mouth. 

 

A medium-sized parrot, the rainbow lorikeet has typical parrot features:  a thick, rounded beak and a full spectrum of neon colors.  While most parrots have strong beaks for cracking open nuts, the rainbow lorikeet’s special apparatus is its tongue.  Their scientific genus name of Trichoglossus means “hair-tongued.”  The bird’s tongue has hair-like tufts called papillae that draw up nectar by capillary attraction.  You see the bird in Australian flowering gum trees performing all kinds of aerial tricks to access food. 

 

With a diet consisting primarily of pollen and nectar, it is reliant on blossoms (and fruit) for nourishment.  Because flowering seasons and the production of nectar and pollen varies from year to year, the rainbow lorikeet nomadically moves around following the flowering plants and trees.  They frequent backyard feeders and urban gardens, as well as rainforests and woodlands, and yes, even human cafés. 

 

In 2010 we went to the northern coast of Australia to spend five days in Kakadu National Park, a place we had learned about from an Australian guide ten years earlier.  To get to this remote park we had to fly into the city of Darwin and then drive three hours across barren land.  Before and after the Kakadu adventure we stayed in Darwin. 

 

Rainbow-LorikeetSo one night we got back to our downtown Darwin hotel after a sweltering day of exploring in 110 degrees (F.).  It was 7:00 pm and dark as we walked beneath a leafy tree on our way to a restaurant.  But this tree, whoa, it was so incredibly loud with screeching that we couldn’t even hear each other speaking!  Being birders we had been wearing binoculars, scopes, cameras and every conceivable optic known to humankind all day long, but here we were under a tree loaded with raucous birds and all we had were our wallets. 

 

We thought they were rainbow lorikeets but it was so dark we couldn’t see well, and of course it was so loud we could not even discuss it.  We walked across the street to the souvenir store to consult the friendly talkative cashier with whom we were now familiar.  Yes, he said, those were definitely rainbow lorikeets.  Every night at 7pm, he said, flocks and flocks of the birds fly into that one tree to roost for the night. 

 

Rainbow-Lorikeets-in-treeThe next day was more exploring, more heat, more fun, and more mosquitoes.  And we had one last night in Darwin before it was time to depart.  This night, however, dinner was crackers and cheese in the room, with no plans to go out.  We had enjoyed a long, hot day out in the field and tomorrow we took off at 4 am, so reading and relaxing in the air-conditioned room sounded absolutely dreamy. 

 

But, as it goes in travel, there was something really cool out there in the world that we knew we were missing.  Reading and sleeping…well, we could do that when we got home.  That tall sidewalk tree filled with screaming lorikeets, we would never see it again.  We went down before 7 to watch them coming in, and sure enough, there they were, hundreds of rainbow lorikeets:  vying for roosting positions, doing their acrobatics, and screeching away like there was no tomorrow.