Birds at Big Morongo

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is a Southern California wildlife preserve about a half-hour north of Palm Springs. It is a pleasure to share this magnificent place.

When you first arrive, there is a large parking lot surrounded by big, old cottonwood trees. I hadn’t been there five minutes when I spotted a vermilion flycatcher (photo above) in one of the cottonwoods. He stuck around for a few minutes; but then as birding can be, we never saw him again.

The park is one of the ten largest cottonwood and willow riparian habitats in California, and the large, leafy cottonwood trees, members of the poplar family, were popping with birds.

A pair of western bluebirds also joined us, here is the male.

Near the parking lot is an information kiosk with photos and siting lists, always a great way to start a hike or bird walk.

The Preserve started in 1968 when the Nature Conservancy bought 80 acres from a rancher. Over the years, more acreage was purchased and more organizations stepped in. Today it is part of the Sand to Snow National Monument and encompasses 31,000 acres, with wildlife corridors connecting the Preserve with Joshua Tree National Park. 

It is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency, and also run by a successful non-profit organization, Friends of Big Morongo Canyon Preserve.

More info: Big Morongo Canyon Preserve

I have been here three times, and each time was in the month of February. Temperatures this past February were chilly and the mountains were snow-covered. Many of the trees were still bare, but some of the birds, like the vermilion flycatcher, were just arriving for the summer.

There were also plenty of year-round residents like the California Scrubjay and the Nuttall’s Woodpecker. Both of these bird species nest here.

Most of the Preserve lies within the Mojave Desert but a small portion also includes the Sonoran Desert.

Deserts, mountains, natural springs, a creek and marsh offer a diverse landscape featuring a rich array of habitats. As you can imagine, a corridor with fresh water in a desert location is a big draw for the wildlife.

This mountain chickadee reminded us of the mountain habitat.

A well-maintained and extensive boardwalk takes the visitor through the wet areas and winds around the creek and woods. There are also trails into the desert and leading up to the ridges.

Link to Trail Map

When we walked by these palms photographed below, they were screeching with finches. I saw many house finches and lesser goldfinches flying into the brown palm cover and not coming out–they were snug and secure in their community.

These are California fan palms. They are native and commonly seen in southern California. Washingtonia filifera.

We saw many songbirds in the woods around us: yellow-rumped warblers, oak titmice, bushtits, black phoebes, ruby-crowned kinglets, American robins, California towhees, white-crowned sparrows and dark-eyed juncos. Woodpeckers, raptors, songbirds, hummingbirds and more.

Here is a cedar waxwing we found in a flock.

In addition to the birds, there are mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and more. We stopped to listen to a few chorus frogs, but could not see them in their murky, tall-grass hideaways.

California ground squirrels greeted us…

…and as the sun warmed the day up, an occasional western fence lizard joined us too.

The surrounding desert mesquite plants were loaded with mistletoe. Phainopeplas are attracted to the mistletoe berries. This is a desert bird I have only seen a few times in my life, and always a joy to spot.

The Preserve boasts 263 recorded bird species and is an internationally recognized birding site.

There is no entrance or parking fee at Big Morongo and you can show up with or without an agenda.

For birders like us, we follow the flash of color, whirring of wingbeats, or the intriguing “chip” of a call above.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Costa’s Hummingbird

I have just returned from a week of vacation in southern California and wanted to share this hummingbird with you, another dazzler.

The Costa’s hummingbird is a common bird in southern California, as well as the southwest U.S. and northwest Mexico. It winters in western Mexico.

The back is emerald and there are a few white markings. But of course it is the male’s throat that glitters with brilliance.

We saw it often in the desert landscapes and urban gardens. This is a desert canyon, below, on the outskirts of Palm Springs where we saw over a dozen Costa’s hummingbirds.

What is unique about this hummingbird is its purple–deep rich purple–gorget or throat.

Many hummingbirds have red and pink and orange gorgets. And there are other purple hummingbirds, but the purple gorget (pronounced gor-jet) of this Costa’s is not something we see too often.

Sometimes the male’s gorget looks black, depending on the light.

The bird is small, as most hummingbirds are, at 3-3.5 inches long (7-9 cm).

They live year-round in southern California, and last week when we were there, the males were doing their impressive, acrobatic swoops and dives–their courtship displays. See range map at end.

A flash of royal purple as one hummingbird, and then another, zoomed from flowering plant to plant.


Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Costa’s Hummingbird Range, courtesy Wiki. Yellow=breeding, Green=year-round, Blue=winter.

Early Spring Wonders

Our Northern California spring days have been a joy. Come join me for a morning walk. It’s a little chilly so button up.

It is in the low Fahrenheit 30s every morning (-1C) and by mid-day reaches about 55F (13C). The sunshine’s warmth opens up the buds a little bit more each day.

The early spring flowers, like narcissus paper whites and daffodils, are out now, adding an occasional heady scent to the path.

The flowering quince is in bloom, another early spring flowering delight.

Deciduous oaks and ornamental gingkos are still leafless, but they have promising buds. We walk along a creek where there are many willow trees. It is a glorious sight to see so many willow branches covered with cottony catkins…pussy willows.

Our early morning walks reveal frost on the grass and rooftops, but as we reach the third and final mile, the grass has already become dewy and a popular spot for robins.

American robins are often thought of as spring harbingers in American culture; but that does not ring true for those of us who live in mild climates. Robins live here in northern California throughout the winter. I have seen them in large flocks of 100 a few times, but usually it’s flocks of 25-30.

Almost every day I am now hearing western bluebirds, even very early when it is still frosty cold.

Reptiles and amphibians are waking up too. Sometimes on a very warm day a tiny western fence lizard will be sunning on a rock. Only the tiny ones are out right now, they have less body to charge up than the adult lizards. Adults are still hibernating underground.

The spring calls of occasional frogs and toads ribbiting around the creeks can also be heard.

Some of the birds are changing their repertoire, singing their spring songs.

The oak titmouse is changing voices from its scratchy winter call into melodious tunes of spring.

Listen below:

Winter Oak Titmouse call

Spring Oak Titmouse call

Lately not a day goes by without the red-shouldered hawks proclaiming propriety with their piercing calls.

Last week we spotted one of my favorite spring arrivals in the backyard: the Allen’s hummingbird. They spend their winters in central Mexico and are now returning here to Northern California to breed. So far I have only seen the males; the females will come soon. The Allen’s are creating quite a stir for the year-round resident Anna’s hummingbirds, and the fierce battles have begun.

We came upon this Anna’s hummingbird feasting on the flowers of a bolted vegetable plant.

It’s a little too early for the riot of spring flowers and dancing butterflies, but it is a marvelous time to take in the bounties of the new spring season.

Written by Jet Aliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Hawaiian Islands

Aloha! Let’s hop on a virtual plane and cruise to Hawaii for a tropical visit to a few major islands.

Hawaii has approximately 137 islands, many of which are very small. There are eight major islands and we’re going to frolic on the four most commonly visited ones.

We are 2,000 miles (3,200 km) west of the U.S. coast in an isolated spot in the Pacific Ocean.

The islands were formed from volcanoes on the ocean floor approximately 40-70 million years ago. Some of Hawaii’s volcanoes are dormant, while others continue to erupt.

The oldest islands are in the north and are smaller due to longer exposure to erosion. We’ll start in the north.

You can see the eight major islands in the map (above). Niihau, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe are primarily not open to tourists for various reasons.

Kauai, Oahu, Maui and the Big Island are where most residents live and tourists visit.

As a tourist who has visited Hawaii many times and always to enjoy the wildlife, the emphasis here will be on the world outdoors.


The oldest of the main islands, Kauai has had more time for soil and plants to reestablish on top of the lava eruptions. It is also one of the wettest places on earth. With steady rainfall, the waterfalls and lush forests offer rich vistas on Kauai.

Other stunningly beautiful sights on Kauai include the NaPali coast and Kilauea Point in the north.

There’s a tricky trail on the coast of NaPali that offers some of the most beautiful vistas I have ever seen, like this one, below.

Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge has a lighthouse and one of the largest populations of nesting seabirds in the state.

Here we have seen frigatebirds, albatross, shearwaters and more. This nene, below, was photographed from Kilauea Point, it is Hawaii’s state bird. I have participated in Nene counts for this beleaguered-but-reviving endemic species, the rarest goose in the world.


This island is home to the state’s capital, Honolulu, and is the busiest and most populated.

One day we went birding with my nephew and his son, Oahu residents, in Kapiolani Park at the base of Diamond Head. We were looking for a would-be lifer, the fairy tern, but to no avail.

Below are two photos of Diamond Head, a volcanic mountain that has not erupted in over 150,000 years. This first photo is from Kapiolani Park. The aerial shot below it shows Diamond Head’s crater.

The north side of Oahu is a world-famous surfing hotspot…

…and is less urbanized with good habitat for birds, including this common moorhen and Hawaiian stilts.

The beauty of every Hawaiian Island is the mountains that dominate the landscape. All are made from volcanoes, and volcanic activity is different on every island. This is what makes each island unique.


Maui was formed by two volcanoes that now overlap each other into one island. The younger of the two volcanoes is on the eastern side, called Haleakala.

There is a visitor center at the top, yielding these incredible views of the volcanic mountain and crater.

Not far from the summit we have had the fortune of finding endemic honeycreepers several times. Honeycreepers are nectar-feeding birds native only to Hawaii, many of them have become extinct over the years. We spotted this Amikihi in Hosmer’s Grove. (Hawaii has no hummingbirds.)

As it is with all these main Hawaiian Islands, the top of the mountain is typically more undeveloped and has native flora and fauna, whereas the base of the mountain has more human development and introduced plants and wildlife.

Warmer weather, beaches and access to supplies is understandably the human draw at the mountain bases.

Which side of the island you are on, leeward or windward, is also a factor for development due to weather.

So many times I have spent the day on the mountain’s top, bundled up, sometimes soaking wet, as we went birding and hiking and exploring. Then we would drive back down to our condo where everyone is in bathing suits, relaxed and sipping on a drink in the midst of fragrant tropical trees.

So we also spend time snorkeling and swimming in bays and coves. I have had the honor of snorkeling in this cove, below, several times.

The Big Island.

Also known as the island of Hawaii, it is the largest and youngest island in the chain. Being the youngest island, it still has volcanic eruptions.

The Big Island is my favorite. I like it because it is bigger and less congested and very interesting. I find the lava formations fascinating and love the unique landscapes that resemble moonscapes. I have seen the most birds and wildlife on this island, too, native and otherwise.

This photo below shows an expansive vista of lava landscapes on the Big Island’s Saddle Road. After an eruption has cooled down, years later, plant life takes root. Here there are plants, but it is mostly lava. The landscape varies depending on where the lava has spewed and hardened, and how many years it has been.

Volcanoes National Park is a must-see for us on the Big Island due to numerous hiking and birding opportunities.

Volcanoes National Park, National Park Service website

This is an active lava flow spitting fire and smoke, below, taken from a very far and safe distance. Kilauea Volcano.

On the other side of the Big Island, this is one of my favorite snorkeling spots near the Place of Refuge on the south Kona coast. The “beach” is all hardened, black lava. It’s not a place for laying out, but under the water are a variety of coral and fish, spinner dolphins and green sea turtles.

As we reluctantly head back to Kona International Airport, we still have a little time to check out this marina formed with black lava and showing Mauna Loa (volcano) in the sky’s horizon.

Thanks for joining me on this Hawaiian Island tour…or as they say in Hawaii: Mahalo.

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.

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.

The Land of Florida

In the aftermath of last week’s devastating Hurrican Ian in Florida, we have all seen much news about the tragic destruction. I have a brief tour for you highlighting the beauty and wild creatures in this fine state.

Geologically, the Florida peninsula is a porous plateau of limestone sitting atop bedrock. The limestone is topped with sandy soils deposited over millions of years of rising and falling sea levels. Today, much of the state is at or below sea level. See topographical map at end.

Florida has the longest coastline of any contiguous state–8,436 miles (13,576 km).

The Florida Reef is the third largest coral barrier reef system in the world (after the Great Barrier Reef and the Belize Barrier Reef).

More info: Florida Wikipedia

There are many species of plants, birds, mammals, reptiles and insects in this subtropical and tropical wonderland.

You don’t have to be in Florida long to spot their state reptile, the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis).

With all that coastline, sea birds and wading birds are commonly seen throughout the state.

The Florida Keys, the state’s popular coral cay archipelago, are the southernmost part of the continental U.S. They never have freezing temperatures and tropical wildlife thrives here.

Also in southern Florida, the Everglades offer an ecosystem that is not presently found anywhere else on earth.

Several ecosystems comprise the Everglades, as shown in this diagram, below.

Everglades Ecosystems. Courtesy Wikipedia

More info: Everglades Wikipedia

Much of the natural land of southern Florida is swamp and wetland, although decades of extensive human development have altered the natural state.

More recently, in the last few decades, scientists, citizens and environmentalists have done a lot to restore wetlands, important for many reasons. More info: Wetland Wikipedia.

Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, also in southern Florida, offers visitors a view of the Everglades ecosystem, while providing a safe preserve for the abundant life.

The sanctuary has one of the largest remaining stands of bald and pond cypress trees, seen below, in North America.

This painted bunting, one of our country’s most colorful songbirds, greeted us while there.

One year we sought and found wild Florida manatees, the state’s designated marine mammal, near Tampa on the west coast. The manatees stayed submerged, so our photos didn’t come out well.

Oddly enough, the Big Bend Power Plant has a discharge canal that is attractive to the manatees for its warm water, and the state and federal governments have designated it a manatee sanctuary.

Manatee. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The west coast of Florida is flanked by the Gulf of Mexico. This coast, especially in the south, is where the recent hurricane did the most damage.

Sanibel Island, shown in photos below and throughout, was severely damaged. It is inaccessible right now because the hurricane washed away the only road access.

These photos are from a few years back.

We were on Sanibel Island for a week and were frequently greeted by pods of bottle-nosed dolphins. Tursiops truncatus.

The sandy beaches of Sanibel, a barrier island, were covered every day with beautiful shells washed up from the recent tide.

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is also on Sanibel Island. It is a 5,200 acre (21 km2) preserve and wilderness area.

The east coast of Florida is approximately 500 miles of Atlantic Ocean.

Below are the white sands and warm waters of Cocoa Beach. This was a day in November, on a separate visit.

After a thoroughly exhilarating visit to the Kennedy Space Center…

… we spent several hours birding on nearby Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Channels of tannic water and mangrove trees are the perfect habitat for alligators. This one, below center, is especially long.

We were hoping to see the Florida Scrub-jay here, which would have been a life bird, but that day it proved elusive. We did, however, see many other birds.

Close to the northern border, a day at the Jacksonville Arboretum yielded one of their common woodpeckers in a tree filled with the ubiquitous Spanish moss. We do not have this woodpecker in California.

We also had an open view that day of the gopher tortoise, Florida’s designated state tortoise. Native to southeastern U.S. and a keystone species (i.e., has a disproportionately large effect on its natural environment), this Gopherus polyphemus was about the size of a small dinner plate.

That concludes our brief tour of the Sunshine State. This state of sunshine, warmth, and humidity is a troubled state this week and for years to come, after Ian’s destruction.

We hope for the best.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Courtesy Wikipedia