Emus and Other Oz Friends

It was a sweltering, hot afternoon, like many we’ve had lately in Northern California; only it was years ago on an isolated Australian savannah, when unique Oz friends came to entertain us.

They were not human friends, for there were no other humans there that day, except for the woman behind the counter at the empty Wetland Centre. It was the Mareeba Wetlands in Queensland.

It was quiet, desolate and sizzling hot, and we had the whole place to ourselves.

Surrounded by nothing but termite mounds and gum trees, I think the heat, over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 C.), had something to do with it.

So far, Athena and I had had good birding luck, had found lizards and birds here, all completely entertaining.

The frill-necked lizard, one of my favorite lizards. Their neck frills up when they’re alarmed. But that day it was so hot, not even the frill moved.

And the birds in Australia are just always a surprise. This noisy intense bird had a blue face and yellow eyes. They eat bugs and nectar.

This ruby-eyed bird looked like a cross between a pheasant and a cuckoo.

So then we were taking a break, enjoying a cup of tea, when four big emus came sauntering in.

When the first one came around the corner, I noticed we both sat up straighter. Then three more followed.

The cheeky giants gathered around a nearby picnic table.

Native only to Australia, emus primarily eat plants and grasses, and that’s what they were eating that day. They also eat arthropods and insects in grass like crickets, beetles, and grasshoppers.

Although they are technically birds, emus are flightless and have large bodies, so it’s more like coming upon a human or large animal, than a bird.

They are funny-looking with their hairless legs and long necks. And their feathers look more like grass than feathers.

Their necks are blue underneath the feathers.

We knew better than to think they were friendly.

They were indifferent to us, and continued quietly grazing, even as Athena slowly moved in closer to get photos.

They can sprint up to 31 mph (50 km/h) and have powerful legs and formidable claws, used for defense.

The second tallest bird in the world, emus average around 65 inches (165 cm) tall, about 5’5″. Only ostriches are taller.

It is a unique experience to be face-to-face on level ground with a bird. It doesn’t happen too often.

Eventually Athena got too close. The emu let Athena know by indignantly stretching its long neck higher than her nearly six-foot-high frame. At that point we both backed up, and they resumed their grazing.

They stayed there so long that eventually we went back to our table.

They grazed on grass while we sipped our tea.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Cooper’s Hawks, The Next Generation

Living in a mixed woodland, I have had the unending pleasure of watching generations of Cooper’s Hawks grow up for several years. Here is a brief look at this fascinating raptor.

It all started with this individual (below), in March of 2017. That month it was cold and rainy with hail and a scant accumulation of snow. Athena and I were very excited about seeing this adult daily, a new addition to our backyard bird population.

I wrote a post about the adult we saw that cold day in mid-March, and the family that developed thereafter.

Here’s the 2017 post: New Cooper’s Hawks

Since then many things have happened, including wildfires that incinerated the madrone tree where they had nested.

It is four years later, the forest is slowly recovering, and the most wonderful miracle happened.

Two new Cooper’s hawks have joined our spirited woodland.

Imagine the thrill for us when, last month, we saw two more juveniles once again circling our property, learning stealth and calling out in that familiar airy cry.

They are the next generation of that same adult pictured in Photo #3 above, who began the nest in 2017. That means not only did they not perish in the fires, but they returned to breed again.

This summer, since our plans for family, friends and trips have been curtailed by new pandemic surges, we spend a lot of time at home. This has given us the privilege of watching the next generation mature.

Just like the earlier brood years ago, the new juveniles are adapting to life in our California forest.

Will they eventually come to the water tray for refreshment like this one did?

They have already learned how to fly, an amazing accomplishment in itself. Unlike many raptors, Accipiter cooperii are proficient at flying through forests. Their relatively short wings and long tail make them skillful hunters amid tree trunks, limbs and leaves. They are a marvel to watch.

This new generation is cooperatively hunting, too. Ordinarily Cooper’s hawks are solitary birds, but when they are young sometimes they hunt together. Both generations we have watched start their prowess this way. One drives the prey towards the other.

So far hunting hasn’t been too successful from what we have seen, and it’s just as well that we don’t see everything.

Both juveniles are hunting together in this photo, taken a few days ago.

While they have learned flight and hunting techniques, our new sibling pair are still learning stealth.

One day they dramatically swooped together into a pine tree with great flying flair, but making such a racket that all the birds vanished instantly. Both hawks were screaming. Actually screaming.

After a few more days went by, we watched one hawk practicing patience. When it flew into the tree the small birds scattered, as usual. But this time the hawk stayed perched for about 15 minutes, waited for the birds to return. They did return, one by one, and the hawk stayed perched and still, just watching.

Every dawn I hear the whistling cry of the Cooper’s hawks. I did today and hopefully I will tomorrow. Interestingly, the screaming voice is lessening in volume as the birds mature. The hawks and I start our new day together, pursuing life in our own ways.

We take it one day at a time, figuring out what to do next and next and next.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Postcards from Kakadu

Here’s a park so big that it has four river systems. It is loaded with wildlife, some that eat humans. It dates back tens of thousands of years; and although it’s accessible, most people will never get here.

Kakadu National Park is a vast expanse in the northern tip of the Northern Territory of Australia. It covers 7,646 square miles (19,804 sq. km) and holds the double distinctions of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a Ramsar Wetland.

There are two basic seasons in Kakadu: dry and wet. Like many wilderness areas in the world, the dry season in Kakadu means the water sources have shrunken, which brings the wildlife closer to the water and more available for observing. The wet season brings monsoons and flooding.

More info about Kakadu: Wikipedia and Parks Australia

We were there in the dry season, in September of 2010. As birders we stayed focused on the wetlands, foregoing the waterfalls and other land features spanning this enormous park.

Due to the extremes in temperatures and conditions, accommodations and human establishments were few. We stayed at the only lodge in the park to be closer to the wildlife.

Every day by noon the thermometer hovered around 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 C.), so we did most of our exploring in the very early morning and late in the day.

Probably our favorite activity was the Yellow Water Boat cruises, cruising in a pontoon boat through the wetlands. We had safe and close-up views of saltwater crocodiles and wetland birds.

The largest living reptile on earth, saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) also have the greatest bite pressure measured in any living animal. Salties, as the Australians call them, can stay hidden underwater for an hour, eventually lunging up to grab their prey and devour it. They look deceptively docile.

Predators abound in this harsh wilderness. We watched in awe as this female Australian Darter wrestled with a large fish…and stayed until the fish’s tail went sliding down her throat.

This four-foot stork (50 inches tall or 127 cm) foraged in the lily flowers.

Equally as enticing were some enormous escarpments: steep, rocky plateaus jutting out of the floodplains. We visited two of the more well-known rock formations that were highlighted with Aboriginal rock art, Ubirr and Nourlangie Rock.

The rock art dates back about 20,000 years. Sources vary as to the exact age of the drawings, but the origin of the artists is undeniably Aboriginal.

The Aboriginals drew pictures not only as expression, but as part of their dream culture, striving to encourage the spiritual world to bestow an abundance of wildlife for hunting, healthy offspring, and other human riches.

By visiting these rock art sites and learning about the original people, a curious thing happened. The past fused with the present, and all of humanity came alive.

It heightened the sacredness of this place.

Link to Rock Art at Kakadu National Park.

Most nights after the heat had diminished by about 20 degrees, a simple walk through the adjacent campground became a fun activity. Due to crocodiles, walking around the wild and watery places was not safe.

So we looked for birds in the campground, where vacationing Australians in their “caravans” (van-size campers) were cooking their dinners and socializing. It was a raucous scene most nights, and endlessly interesting. Up above us in the surrounding trees were unique birds.

In the campground we stood out as birders in our geeky clothes and equipment; and two college students befriended us. They called us “twitchers” (birders) and took us to see owls and stone-curlews, and listen to unusual frogs.

The mornings were filled with sightings of birds and crocodiles and beautiful wetland scenes, until it got too hot.

We spent the afternoons submerged in the lodge swimming pool or reviewing our bird studies. At night the geckos in the room got loud, and we ventured out to the campground.

When our week in Kakadu came to a close, we returned to the Northern Territory’s biggest city (Darwin) about a four-hour drive away. In the pre-dawn morning we boarded a flight for the next leg of our journey on the Great Barrier Reef.

As we continued our Australian adventures, the sacredness, beauty, raw wildness, and danger of Kakadu blissfully remained with us. Thanks for sharing this adventure.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Tropical Delights

Sometimes it is interesting to see some of our most common foods in their pre-processed earth-growing forms. Here is a fun look at a few of the food delights I have seen while birding in tropical countries.

The food plant I have seen the most in my tropical birding travels: bananas.

Genus Musa. Bananas grow in a wide variety of soils and are harvested in 135 countries.

The largest herbaceous plant, a banana plant is typically about 16 feet (5m) tall. There is a large pink flower or inflorescence that emerges from the plant where the bananas grow.

Although I would never venture into plantations on my own, local bird guides, familiar with surroundings and people, often take Athena and I into the fields.

In the Amazon, our guide led us through this banana plantation, below, as we headed for a bird blind. We were on a mission to spot macaws at the river bank. We took a shortcut through rows of these bananas. They are the most common cultivar, the Cavendish, the species most of us buy from the grocery store.

Lucky for us, we found the macaws too.

Interestingly, a few days after our macaw experience, our motorized canoe passed by these bananas being transported on their way to market.

This euphonia bird, in Belize, is eating the banana seeds he successfully wrangled out of the banana.

While the banana is one of the most recognizable food items in the world, there are few people who would ever know that these red pods are what chocolate is made from.

Years earlier, while birding in Belize, we first saw yellow pods hanging in the trees. In a flash, our guide Glen had kicked off his shoes, climbed a tree, and brought down a yellow pod. None of us knew what it was.

It is a cocoa pod. They come in various colors, depending on the species and maturity.

As Glen opened the pod, he enthusiastically explained he had done this frequently as a kid. It was impressive how quickly and deftly he climbed up that tree.

Making chocolate starts with the pod. They are cut from the tree with a machete, and the beans are extracted from the pod. There are 30-50 beans in each pod. The beans go through an elaborate process of fermentation, drying, roasting and more.

We tasted the beans, but it was nothing like chocolate. In fact, for one like me who is a chocolate lover, I chose to forget the taste.

Coffee, like chocolate, also goes through a lot of processing.

It starts in the field with a worker, like this Mexican man with his basket and machete. We were in this plantation marveling at parrotlets, soon after dawn, when he came through to start his work day.

Shade-grown crops, like this coffee plantation (below) in Belize, are an environmentally sound way to grow crops. You can see there are tall trees in the same land parcel as the short coffee plants. This way the coffee can grow without obliterating the surrounding forest.

These toucans, in this field, were happy about that.

This is one of the coffee plants up close. You can see the coffee berries in clumps in the center.

Between exporting and explorers, there have been many centuries of trading and transporting exotic foods. In tropical islands like Hawaii, we see many unique foods that originated in Southeast Asia like star fruit and rambutan.

While birding in a historic churchyard on the Big Island of Hawaii, we came across these star fruit.

When you cut a cross section of the fruit, the pieces are star-shaped.

Rambutans, too, are a plant that originated in Southeast Asia but also grows well in Hawaii.

Friendly surfers on a Kauai roadside sold us tasty rambutans.

It is a red tropical fruit with soft, hair-like spikes, seen in the center of the plate below. Easy to find all over Hawaii.

Pineapples and papayas are also easy to find all over Hawaii, both originally from the Americas.

This gecko is waiting for the day when the papayas will be ripe.

We are lucky in my home state of California where conditions provide a rich variety of crops. But I will have to cover that another time.

Whether you’re traveling or birding or simply cruising your own back roads, there are often crops or plants around us providing food to humans or other earth-dwelling inhabitants.

Cheers to a marvelous planet on which we live, providing sunshine, soil, rain and oxygen.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Birds of the Rainbow

There are many scientific discussions about the brightly colored birds on our planet. But instead of getting bogged down with melanin, refraction, and mating theories, let’s just look and admire today.

This is a day to relax into the rainbow.

We will start with the first color of the rainbow: red. The summer tanager and vermillion flycatcher, both found in North America and elsewhere, begin the rainbow with a hot start.

Shades of red vary in the avian world, these two birds are red-orange.

Pink birds, a variation of red, are not seen as commonly.

Next on the spectrum, orange in birds is often paired with brown. But this azure kingfisher sports a very bright orange breast and legs (and dazzling azure head and back).

This orange and black grosbeak breeds in our backyard every summer. The male’s colors flash conspicuously as he flies.

Since many forests have green leaves that turn to yellow, yellow birds can be found in many places.

Green is a color often seen in parrot species.

This violet-green swallow, a bird who nests in our nest boxes, swoops through the air showing off his elegant emerald finery.

Blue and indigo are both colors of the rainbow, and in birds there are numerous shades of blue.

This so-called green honeycreeper appears more turquoise.

While this turquois jay is adorned with several shades of blue.

The greater blue-eared glossy starling provides a blue spectacle all its own.

The aptly-named resplendent quetzal gets my vote for the most beautiful bird on the planet. The blue-green shades shimmer in the light, and the long streamer tail floating behind the bird stops you in your tracks.

We traveled to a very remote village in a Central American cloud forest to see this bird. We met our guide at 5 a.m. and he took us to the wild avocado trees where the quetzals eat. At one point there was actually a traffic jam in the forest because truck drivers, potato farmers and anyone passing by abandoned their vehicles to join our admiration club.

The peacock, a native of India with a long swag of green and blue, is incredibly eye-catching with a tail full of eyes.

Violet birds. The Costa’s hummingbird looks black in some light. But its throat and head vibrantly come alive with iridescent purple in the right light.

And this purple honeycreeper is so garishly purple it is difficult to look anywhere else.

Although the lilac-breasted roller has a lilac-colored breast, the bird showcases a rainbow kaleidoscope, especially when the bird spins through the air.

This leads us to a few sensational birds who grace the world with all the colors of the rainbow.

The rainbow bee-eater, a marvel to behold.

The painted bunting effortlessly showcases all the colors on the artist’s palette.

And lastly, the remarkable rainbow lorikeet, boasting the colors of the rainbow like no other bird on this planet.

Birders and photographers know well the game of light when it comes to the outdoors. If a brightly colored subject isn’t in good light, the color doesn’t stand out.

But there are those marvelous days when the light is just right: a day to celebrate the colors of the rainbow and all the glory on this planet.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Tropical Adventure in La Selva

One of the world’s most prominent tropical research centers is located in Costa Rica. A few years back, we had the pleasure and honor of being guests there, settling in with the rainforest creatures.

La Selva Biological Station is located in a lowland rainforest in northeastern Costa Rica. It is owned and operated by a consortium of about 50 universities and research institutions: Organization for Tropical Studies. They are dedicated to the study and preservation of the world’s tropical rainforests.

Although Costa Rica is a small country, it is home to more than 500,000 wildlife species making it “one of the 20 countries with the highest biodiversity in the world.” (Wikipedia) As a Central American country it is a natural land bridge, formed 3-5 million years ago, allowing the very different flora and fauna of the two continents, North and South America, to mix.

Today this biological research station hosts approximately 300 scientists from all over the world. Among the research labs, herbarium, classrooms and dormitories are a few stark rooms for laypeople visitors, where we stayed for four days.

More info: La Selva Wikipedia and Organization for Tropical Studies

Although our accommodation was a concrete cell, La Selva was one of our very favorite places to stay because we were in the center of a pristine rainforest teeming with wildlife. And to be surrounded by enthusiastic scholars of the rainforest, young and old, was a humbling joy.

Every day began when the howler monkeys and screeching parrots announced the dawn. Covered with DEET, long pants and long sleeves, Athena and I headed out into this humid, buggy rainforest each day. Interesting to note: of the 500,000 different wildlife species that Costa Rica hosts, 300,000 of them are insects.

This howler monkey was scarfing up the tree’s orange fruit.

Every day after our cafeteria breakfast, we would visit the tree with the two-toed sloth. S/he was always in the same tree, same limb, and always sleeping. And every day we stood under the tree craning our necks, binoculars and cameras ready, faithfully waiting for the sloth to move.

One lucky day it opened one eye and stretched a little. Of course we were both thrilled.

In La Selva we saw many birds and mammals, reptiles and insects. It is the nature of rainforests to have frequent rain; muddy and moldy ground; an abundance of ants, mosquitoes, gnats; and predators.

Much of the rainforest was dark, due to the thick canopy, but an occasional clearing offered photo opportunities.

We were pretty excited to find this three-toed sloth, a different species than the two-toed above. It was also asleep. They have an extremely slow metabolism, and are so slow they grow algae on their coat. If you look closely at this one below, you can see its furry arm is green-tinged…that’s algae.

There was a suspended pedestrian bridge where we spotted this big male Green Iguana. They are native in Costa Rica.

We also found a Little Tinamou near the bridge. Residents of Central and South America, they are very timid and rarely-seen birds.

We spent all day every day on the La Selva trails. When it got so hot we could no longer stand it, we would buy an ice cream bar at the gift shop and watch toucans and aracaris in the trees above.

Coatis were often around; a raccoon-like mammal seen in Central and South America, Mexico and the southwestern U.S.

Snakes are prevalent in this rainforest. This is the Bothriechis schlegelii, commonly known as the eyelash viper. It is venomous and aggressive, but was quite a distance from us.

There are 894 bird species in Costa Rica, more than all of the United States and Canada combined. Trogons are residents of tropical rainforests, this male was often outside our room.

Oropendolas are large songbirds in Central and South America, in the blackbird family. We saw two different species in La Selva.

Located relatively near to the equator, there were 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of nighttime. By 6 pm every night it was pitch-black.

We walked nearly a mile to the cafeteria, and after dinner the forest was black and very lively. We each wore a headlamp to light our way.

The first night we walked “home” we were intimidated. There were so many mysterious animal sounds, and lots of unidentifiable eye shine on the path beside us. We bravely kept walking.

A few paces later we discovered that what we thought was animal eye shine was actually lightning bugs twinkling in the humid air.

Each night we walked through this dark forest, hearing howler monkeys, watching swooping shadows of nighthawks and bats, serenaded by the tink-tink-tink of the “tink frog.”

By the end of our stay, the after-dinner walk had become a favorite adventure…but we were wise enough not to dally or deviate off the path.

One of my favorite night sounds, heard for miles, was the Great Tinamou’s loud and plaintive song. This is a recording (below) made in La Selva; you can also hear the cacophony of rainforest creatures.

Sound recording of Great Tinamou

On our last day, we had several hours between check-out and when our transport van arrived. Athena had a target species she wanted to photograph: the strawberry poison-dart frog. A student had told us where he’d consistently found them.

That day I would perform one of my most sacrificial photography-assistant tasks ever.

We found the grassy patch the student had described. It had an underlayer of squishy water, and was covered with fallen banana leaves and rotted logs. Because the frogs are small, smaller than your thumb, they vanish quickly in the debris.

We discovered if I walked out ahead, the vibration startled them to hop, exposing their bright tiny bodies, and then Athena would swoop in with her camera. The only problem was that every time I took a step, a cloud of a hundred mosquitoes poofed up around my ankles.

But we forged on, bent at the waist, scanning the grass and debris, enduring the mosquitoes and waiting for this tiny frog to pop up out of the detritus.

We found a few.

It would look like this at first…

… and then she would zoom in and click.

Their bright coloration advertises to birds and other predators that they are toxic. Are they toxic to humans? Yes, but only if you touch them. While the poison-dart frog wasn’t a problem, those mosquitoes made a hearty meal out of me.

I’m glad I could share with you this magnificent research station and our tropical adventure. The nice thing is, dear reader, you went through all of this rainforest and escaped every single mosquito.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Berries and Birds

With the onset of chilly winter days in Northern California, the insects are gone and the songbirds are feasting on berries. And what a party it is.

Native toyon and madrone berries are the most common winter berry on our mountaintop property. They ripen at this time of year when the berries have become essential.

Usually the berries begin to start appearing in fall, and occasionally a songbird will taste one to test for ripeness. If the berry is not ripe yet, it does not get eaten; it stays on the branch until riper days. I have actually witnessed birds taste-testing and then spitting out the unripe berry.

Then in January the feasting begins.

Every year is different depending on rain and temperatures.

This year the thrushes arrived in fall, more than I’d ever seen before. They stayed for a month or so, but when we didn’t get rain they left our mountaintop. I heard them down in the valley while walking in the park. It’s more mild down there.

January came and the rains came, and now the thrushes are starting to return, fortunately.

Meanwhile, the resident finches and some robins have been enjoying the berries.

Soon, as it always goes, a big flock of robins or cedar waxwings will arrive and spend the day here devouring the berries.

That day will be like the circus coming to town.

Birds everywhere, so much hopping and chirping. A blur of songbirds flying from one berry bush to another, lots of commotion and cross-traffic in the sky.

Robin flocks are unsynchronized and usually several dozen individuals; while waxwing flocks are in perfect synchronicity, and number about two dozen. The cedar waxwings, named for the cedar berries they prefer and the red-tipped wings, fly in formation and land all together in a tree before they disperse to feed.

You can see the tongue on this cedar waxwing.

Hermit and varied thrushes are solitary birds, so it’s not as much of a scene. They wait for the big flocks to leave, and then they hop around snapping up the few remaining berries in the shrubs and undergrowth.

We have other native berries here too, like manzanita, coffeeberry, and blue elderberry. Poison oak produces white berries. They all get eaten, but at different times of the year.

In the Bay Area’s mild winter climate, there are many ornamental non-native plants that produce berries and attract birds. The two berry plants I see most commonly in residential neighborhoods are both in the rose family: cotoneaster and pyracantha.

Last fall we were in our friends’ suburban garden two mornings in a row when large flocks of cedar waxwings dropped down to raid the pyracantha bushes. It was a lively and animated scene dominated by dozens of these elegant birds landing above us.

There is often talk of drunken robins eating fermented berries, though this is something neither I nor Athena have ever witnessed. Scientists don’t really advocate this theory.

I looked at five You Tube videos this week where drunken robins were promised. None of the five showed a teetering robin, but there were zealous flocks plucking at berries and creating a whirlwind of chaos.

Mostly birds prefer the fresh berries, for the sugar content. I have seen them go for the withered leftover berries when there was nothing else available, and maybe those few were fermented. There may be some instances where a bird found a fermented berry….

One of the glories of birds and berries, and life on earth, is the seasons. This season the berries will be eaten, the birds will be nourished, then the days will get longer again, and the thrushes will migrate away, and the spring birds will arrive to begin their mating and nesting.

The sacred cycle of life.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Gift of Cranes

Throughout time and across the globe, cranes have symbolized longevity, wisdom, immortality, happiness and good fortune. Here is a gift of cranes as we welcome the new year.

There are 15 species of cranes in the world, all in one family, Gruidae. They fall under three genera; each genera–Antigone, Balearica, Grus–is represented here today (pre-pandemic).

Antigone. The sandhill crane, Antigone canadensis, is one of North America’s two crane species.

While not all cranes are migratory, the sandhill cranes are.

In Northern California we welcome their migrations on the Pacific Flyway every winter.

Cranes are gregarious birds and form large flocks. They have specialized trachea and a big vocabulary, a very vocal bird.

Many cultures associate happiness with the crane, and it is easy to see why when you have witnessed their animated flocks and mating dances.

When they reach breeding age, cranes pair off from the flock. They perform conspicuous dances to attract a mate. Waist-high birds swinging their long legs and flapping their broad wings.

Sometimes just two birds are off on the sidelines jumping and trumpeting, other times one pair starts a chain reaction and several pairs begin to flutter and hop.

They do make you want to kick up your heels and celebrate the joy of life.

This male, below, impressed his mate by repeatedly picking up clumps of dirt and tossing them into the air.

Cranes are monogamous. More info: Cranes Wikipedia.

Although cranes are large birds, they are not always easy to spot because they blend into their environment and have their heads down, foraging.

This is what a field of cranes usually looks like. This field has several hundred cranes in it.

The Sarus crane, photographed below in Australia, is the tallest flying bird in the world, nearly 6 feet (2 m) tall. Antigone antigone. A nonmigratory crane, the Sarus can be found in India, Southeast Asia and Australia.

Cranes are opportunistic feeders and change their diet according to season, location and food availability. They eat both animal and plant matter. We spotted these Sarus cranes on a sweltering day.

Grus. Eight species of cranes are in the Grus genera, including the whooping and wattled cranes shown below.

Some cultures equate cranes to immortality. Whooping cranes, the second of North America’s two crane species, nearly went extinct and were then brought back. That may not be the true definition of immortality, but whooping cranes have done an impressive come-back.

There were once over 10,000 whooping cranes on this continent prior to European settlement. Over-hunting and habitat loss reduced Grus americana to 21 birds in 1941.

Amazingly, today they still join us on this planet. After over half a century of captive breeding and conservation programs, humans have revived the whooping crane population to approximately 800. This bird remains protected on the endangered species list.

A few years ago we visited the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo Wisconsin. It is the only place in the world where all 15 species of cranes can be seen. The Foundation is paramount to world crane conservation.

This first photo is a whooping crane in captivity at the Foundation.

This second photo is a wild pair of whooping cranes we spotted while birding at the Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin. They were tiny even in our binoculars, so Athena photographed them through our spotting scope.

Africa hosts six crane species. We were near the Okavango Delta in Botswana when we came upon a flock of these wattled cranes, Grus carunculata, beside a pond. Many crane species are often found near water.

All crane bodies include a short tail that is covered with drooping feathers called a bustle. I found the wattled cranes so elegant with their long bustles, smoky colors, and bright red wattles.

Balearica. The third genera of crane includes this grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum), found in eastern and southern Africa.

This is one of the most beautiful and exotic cranes I have ever seen…it didn’t seem right for them to be slopping around in the mud. While they foraged, their spiky golden crown feathers vibrated stiffly.

A variety of gregarious, exotic, elegant and dancing cranes to begin your new year. Happy New Year, dear readers, and thank you for another year of good times.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Maui Moments

It’s this time of year that I often get the call of Hawaii. It’s not a phone call or a text, but the Aloha spirit, reaching out, whispering of the warm ease and sweet fragrance, sea breezes and lapping waves.

No trip to Hawaii this winter, it’s not a safe or wise time to travel. I’ve put that call on hold. But when it’s time, I’ll be back to Maui, one of my favorite islands in America’s 50th state.

You can google Maui activities and come up with hundreds of ways to spend your time, below are a few of my favorites.

The second-largest of the Hawaiian Islands, Maui rose up from the sea in the form of two shield volcanoes. Today the island is two mountains: West Maui and Haleakala. They are old volcanoes and dormant.

My favorite thing about Maui in winter is the humpback whales. They’re everywhere.

From December through April, up to 10,000 humpbacks migrate to Maui from Alaska, to breed. The water is warm and shallow–good conditions for birthing and avoiding deep-water predators.

You can spot whales just about anywhere, evident by the exhalation breath spraying from their blowholes.

Whales have been migrating here for centuries. Lahaina, a city on the west coast of Maui, was a lively center for the global whaling industry in the 1800s.

These days whale-watching is the big attraction on Maui, and harpooning is out. An exciting way to spend the day is on a whale-watching boat, cruising the waters looking for whales, and waiting for that special moment when they breach.

Snorkeling is great fun, too. A good map of the island (published by University of Hawaii Press) will yield hundreds of suggestions for good snorkeling beaches, and is helpful for bypassing some of the more web-linked popular tourist spots.

This bay, below, is off the radar. We had to trek through some overgrowth to get to it, and the beach is not sand, it’s rocks. But under that water we found butterflyfish, parrotfish, goatfish, tangs, triggerfish, wrasse and more. Left center in this photo are three dots. Those are the only other snorkelers. That, to me, is paradise.

Sea turtles bob around, and, if you’re lucky, you might hear the singing of the humpbacks underwater. We did.

This spotted dove joined us on the beach.

Birds on the Hawaiian Islands are either native or introduced. Natives are the prize for birders, but rare; most are introduced, they arrived on the islands in numerous ways centuries ago.

It is interesting to see the array of introduced birds in the lowlands, but it is absolutely thrilling to go to the mountains and find some of the rare, native birds.

Introduced, non-native birds in the lowlands are bright and exotic. Hotel and resort grounds, residential backyards, and parking lots are festive with them.

Introduced lizards, like this green anole, thrive in ornamental landscapes.

But if you want to see what the Real Maui looks like, you have to leave behind the warm temperatures and sea frolics of the lowlands, and head up to the higher elevations.

We never go to Maui without at least one, preferably two, day-trips to Haleakala. From the west coast, where we usually stay, it takes 2-3 hours to reach the summit.

The farther you drive away from the tourist towns, the more Hawaiian culture you will find. Fruit stands brimming with papayas and guava and homemade banana bread, school kids getting off the bus, local life.

Then, as you ascend Haleakala, you come to overlooks with views over the whole island–land and sea. If you scan the sea with binoculars, you will see a whale spout or two in the distance.

About 75% of the island of Maui is Haleakala…that’s how big the mountain is. The tallest peak: 10,023 feet (3,055 m).

One of our favorite Haleakala places to go is Hosmer Grove. We have spent many rain-drenched hours searching for rare, prized native forest birds in this thicket, below, in Haleakala National Park.

Inside that mass of tangled trees we were rewarded with sightings of several native birds, two shown here. They have the curved bills to draw nectar from flowers.

At Haleakala’s summit are incredible overviews of this sacred mountain and its cinder cones.

Only a few plants, birds, and insects live on the summit with its harsh conditions and volcanic slopes.

Just a few virtual moments in some of your favorite places are a pleasant reminder that we have a marvelously diverse planet, and many more adventures await us.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Map of Hawaii highlighting Maui.svg
Hawaiian Islands, Maui in red. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The Phoebes

In the Americas we have three species of phoebes, a songbird in the flycatcher family. Recently a Black Phoebe has been regularly visiting my window, reminding me of the sweet beauty of phoebes.

We have two of the three phoebe species in Northern California year-round: Black and Say’s. The third species, the Eastern Phoebe, lives in the central and eastern part of the continent, never comes to California.

There are Old World flycatchers and Tyrant flycatchers, hundreds of species across the globe. Phoebes are Tyrant flycatchers, genus Sayornis.

Every summer we have migrant flycatchers nest and breed on our property, then around August they fly south. Once the migrant flycatchers have left, the Black Phoebe arrives, spends the winter here. Usually it’s just one individual…and that individual is here now.

Black Phoebes are commonly seen in their range. They especially like to be near water, and are often seen pumping their tails.

Being flycatchers, phoebes eat insects. They have an endearing way of hunting. From their perch, they chase after the insect in a seemingly random flight—swoops and half-circles, zigs and zags.

In the bird world we use the verb “sally” to describe flycatcher flight.

I love to watch flycatchers for this. They look a little loony, because invariably you cannot see the insect and it looks like the bird is losing its balance, or sanity, or both. But of course the bird is not mixed up at all, it’s successfully hunting.

The second North American phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, lives in the western half of the continent. They live in grasslands and are accordingly different shades of tan, brown, and gold, sometimes peach depending on the light.

The third North American phoebe is the Eastern Phoebe, found in the continent’s middle and east. Due to the cold winters, Eastern Phoebes have a large migrating range.

Sayornis phoebe -Owen Conservation Park, Madison, Wisconsin, USA-8.jpg
Eastern Phoebe Photo: John Benson. Courtesy Wikipedia

All three phoebe range maps are displayed below.

I don’t get to see Eastern Phoebes too often, so here are two links from bird-loving blogger friends who live east of the Rockies:

Eastern Phoebe at Photos by Donna

Eastern Phoebe at H.J. Ruiz-Avian 101

We see phoebes perched most of the time. Even when they sally out for an insect, they then return to the same perch.

Strip away all the facts, and the real enchantment comes every day when the Black Phoebe comes to visit. I hear the chipping sound and come to the window and wait. Lately Phoebe has been perching on the railing of our deck. If I stay inside, the bird will start catching insects close to the house, so I use the house as a blind and watch from inside.

These have not been the easiest days lately for anyone. So a cheerful Black Phoebe at my window brightens the whole day.

I say, “Hi Phoebe, so nice to see you again.”

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander except Eastern Phoebe.

Phoebe range maps below. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org.

Range Map for Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe Range Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org

Range Map for Say's Phoebe
Say’s Phoebe Rang Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org

Range Map for Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe Range Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org