Postcards of America

On this Memorial Day weekend, I share with you some of the beauty of America.

Dairy Farm, Mayville, Wisconsin

 

Jackson Lake, Grand Tetons, Wyoming

 

Little Cowboy, Rodeo, Grover, Colorado

 

Cows, Wildflowers, Carrizo Plains, California

 

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC

 

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, Wyoming

 

Joshua Tree National Park, California

 

Pronghorn, Great Basin, Nevada

 

Moose in Aspen Grove, Alaska

 

Mt. Rainier, Washington

 

Black Oystercatcher, California coast

 

Haleakala Crater, Maui, Hawaii

 

Grizzly Bear, Denali National Park, Alaska

 

Dickcissel, Attwater Preserve, Texas

 

Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

 

Texas Longhorn

 

Nene, Kauai, Hawaii

 

Snow geese, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, California

 

Space Needle, Seattle, Washington

 

Lava beach, Honaunau Bay, Big Island, Hawaii

 

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

 

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

Chromatic Pool, Yellowstone, Wyoming

 

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

 

Denali, Alaska

 

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 

Big Horn Sheep, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

 

Anise Swallowtail Caterpillar, California

 

Wood Duck, male, Calif.

 

Roadrunner, California

 

 

Bobcat, Point Reyes, California

 

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

 

Maui, Hawaii

 

Big Sur, California

 

 

Redwood Forest, Humboldt County, California

 

Cypress Swamp, Jesse Jones Park, Houston, Texas

 

Alligator, Sanibel Island, Florida

 

Olympic Peninsula, Washington

 

All photos by Athena Alexander

 

Let the Nesting Begin

Western Bluebird (male)

I’m always on the look-out for bird nests at this time of year. They’re all over, you just have to be in tune–the country or city, trees or eaves.

 

So far we have found five nests on our property: bushtits, violet-green swallows, western bluebirds, oak titmice, and pacific-slope flycatchers.

Bushtit

It takes some time to find a bird nest; it should, that’s the nature of a nest. How crafty the adult is at hiding the nest, and then keeping it a secret, is directly contingent upon the survival of the young, and ultimately the success of the species.

 

For the bushtits, it was a treasure hunt. One day I noticed they were a pair. Gregarious birds, they are always in flocks of about a dozen, except in spring when they pair off for breeding.

 

After that, I started noticing they were nearby several times a day, not just their once-a-day fly-through. Then I watched with binoculars and saw one had caught a worm and instead of gobbling it up, the bird carried it off.

 

Soon after, we followed the little fluffball as it disappeared into a manzanita bush. Bingo — we found a pocket of lichen in the center of the bush. You can see how hidden it is.

Bushtit nest (in center)

 

If you’re interested in attracting nesting birds, there are many things you can do, especially providing: food, water, shelter, safety. The main thing: be attentive.

Violet-green swallow on nest box

Info about nest boxes:

National Wildlife Federation, Nesting, U.S.

Nestbox Info and Books, England

 

As for finding nests, start watching bird behavior and you’ll be amazed how busy they are.

How to Nest Watch

How to Find a Nest, Canada

 

Good book (U.S.) with bird nest specifics: Peterson Field Guides, Birds’ Nests

 

This year and last, our neighbors lamented there were no more swallows in the area. What happened to the swallows? they said.

 

I grinned. We have them swooping overhead, all day every day, from March to June.

 

Here’s a previously written post about their nesting: Violet-green Swallows.

 

Every spring the violet-green swallows and  western bluebirds have a few weeks of territorial chest-thumping before they choose their respective houses.

 

Bluebird at nest box

 

The oak titmouse is always “our” very first songbird to nest. This year they found a cozy spot inside an old tree snag.

Oak Titmouse

It is for this reason that we keep some dead trees standing–they are a wealth of life regardless of how dead they look.

 

Oak Titmouse Nest Site (round hole toward top of snag)

The pacific-slope flycatchers migrate up every spring from Mexico. We have hosted so many generations of this bird that I could write their family tree.

 

A post I wrote about them: Generations of Flycatchers.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher on nest. Nest materials are same debris as on roof.

Many people don’t have big yards to provide nest spots. I like this story from fellow-blogger Helen at Tiny Lessons Blog. She helped engage the community in providing a new nesting place for the osprey at her local salt marsh: the fundraising efforts and the new nest.

 

What a wonderful thing to live where birds continue to reproduce. And there are so many ways to view the chicks, whether it’s in your yard, a community park, or from your computer via live cams.

 

It’s a sweet reminder of the joy of life.

 

Parent Pacific-slope Flycatcher with a lot to sing about

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Red-billed Tropicbirds at Little Tobago Island

Red-billed Tropicbird, Little Tobago Island

The small and uninhabited island of Little Tobago in the West Indies was our destination for observing rare close-up views of red-billed tropicbirds.

Little Tobago Island jetty

Red-billed tropicbirds nest on this island for 6-8 weeks. After the chicks are born they return to sea. Primarily a white bird with black eye markings, they are about 19 inches (48 cm) long. Their long streamer tail is unmistakable.

View from Little Tobago Observation Deck

There are few chances to ever see a tropicbird. As seabirds, they live and hunt on the ocean. Although they nest on land, if you are in one of the nesting venues, the birds are usually far away on a cliff and about the size of a pinhead.

Magnificent Frigatebird, Little Tobago Island (female)

We took a 20-minute boat ride to the island.

Red-billed Tropicbird

Little Tobago Island has been a wildlife sanctuary since 1926, and is home to numerous nesting seabird colonies. It hosts 50 species of native birds.

 

Nesting Red-billed Tropicbird hiding

Anyone going to Little Tobago Island requires a permit, and there are no facilities (no food, water, or bathrooms).

 

Once we walked through the tropical forest and up the muddy trails, we observed numerous bird species from the observation deck–gulls and noddies, shearwaters, brown boobies, and a peregrine falcon. Plenty of frigatebirds too–another of my favorite seabirds.

 

Our guide, in his jocular Caribbean accent, explained the deck had been built for the making of a David Attenborough film in 1990. Compared to the rest of the island with impenetrable jungle growth and abandoned buildings, the deck was well-maintained, sturdy, and boasted a sweeping, unobstructed view of the ocean.

Frigatebird (left) chasing Red-billed Tropicbird (center)

The film, he told us, was entitled “The Trials of Life,” and David Attenborough had visited here to narrate Episode 3. They had filmed the red-billed tropicbirds and highlighted the birds’s challenge in feeding the chicks.

 

The tropicbird parents gather fish in their mouths to take back to the nest for the chick, but are often attacked by frigatebirds. Sometimes the frigatebird will violently pluck out the tropicbird’s streamer tail, or accost the bird in other ways. They don’t care about the bird, they just want the mouthful of food.

 

Click here for YouTube David Attenborough Episode 3 at Little Tobago Island.  It is a few minutes of footage at the end.

 

I knew about the tropicbirds, the frigatebirds, and their ongoing war. But my interest was suddenly piqued by the other topic.

“So David Attenborough was here?” I asked.

 

The guide nodded.

 

“Right where we’re standing?”

 

He nodded again.

 

I heard him say the tail feathers grow back, but after that I unknowingly tuned out his words. Instead, I looked around at the deck, dazzled by David Attenborough being here.

 

Soon we descended the trail.

 

I muttered, “David Attenborough was on these steps” and “David Attenborough went down this trail.” Between the crashing sea, strong winds, and squawking birds, no one heard me. Well, no one responded. I might’ve been going on a bit too much about it.

 

But magically I had just come one step closer to one of my heroes. This funky little island with its abandoned buildings and seabird spectacles had just become a new heaven.

 

Photo credit Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

 

David Attenborough (cropped).jpg

Wildscreen’s photograph of David Attenborough at ARKive’s launch in Bristol, England © May 2003

The Trials of Life DVD cover

 

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

While birding in California’s Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge recently, we came upon this Loggerhead Shrike. This five-photo series demonstrates the shrike’s success in the span of one minute.

 

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

They hunt like a raptor, even have a hooked bill for impaling prey; but are classified as songbirds. While the bill resembles a raptor’s, they do not have talons. A shrike can, however, kill and carry an animal as big as itself.

 

You will find them mostly in open areas. They perch from an elevated height, assess and hunt from their perch, then swoop down and attack with a jab at the neck. Sounds like a raptor, doesn’t it?

 

sacto_shrike_consumingIn California year-round and endemic to North America, they are about the size of an American Robin. See map below. Wikipedia info here.

 

Lanius ludovicianus have a large and variable diet including large insects, rodents, small birds, bats, amphibians, and reptiles. Also dubbed the “butcher bird,” they will kill bigger prey by skewering  them onto a sharp thorn or barbed wire. They use their sharp bill for severing vertebrae.

 

sacto_shrike_swallowing

Down the hatch

Sometimes shrikes store their cache and return later (like a leopard). They are one of the few birds who can eat poisonous monarch butterflies by impaling them, and then waiting a few days for the toxins to break down.

 

It was raining and we were on an auto tour in a fierce winter storm.

 

We don’t get to see them too often, and in fact their population has been declining by 3% every year since 1966 (allaboutbirds.org).  Scientists have many speculations, including pesticides ingested by the insect diet. Whenever one does appear, we wait and watch and consider ourselves very lucky.

 

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

In driving rain and temperatures in the mid-30s (2 C), how did this warrior find a preying mantis? The preying mantis was probably immobilized by the near-freezing temperature…I’m glad I wasn’t.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Loggerhead Shrike Range Map

allaboutbirds.org

 

 

 

China Camp

China Camp State Park, California.

China Camp State Park, California.

Named for the fishing villages that Cantonese families established here in the 1800s, China Camp is now a California State Park and a Historical Landmark.

 

Once a prime spot for harvesting shrimp, Chinese families lived busy lives here, and before that the Miwok Indians.

 

While there was much success and enterprise in the Chinese villages here in the late 1800s, harsh anti-Chinese laws put a strain on their life in the early 1900s, forcing most villagers to disperse.

 

Sampan, old Chinese shrimp-fishing boat

Sampan, old Chinese shrimp-fishing boat

The new century brought many more changes including polluted waters, loss of shrimp, and real estate development threats.

 

By the 1970s, Gulf Oil had big plans to build high-rise condominiums and commercial establishments.

 

But the residents of the surrounding area, San Rafael, California, with conservation groups and concerned citizens, protested. As a result, the land was sold to the state of California and a park was made.

 

In the early 21st century, when California had budget crises, there was more talk of closing the park. It was running on a deficit. But this too was resolved by the heroics of residents and community organizations, who formed nonprofits and raised funds, and saved the park.

 

china-camp-sign

Chinese characters: Wa Jen Ha Lio, the fishing village’s name

China Camp history and info here.

 

The park is 1,514 acres (613 ha) on a section of the San Francisco Bay. Little kids frolic on the shoreline, people jog and walk their dogs under the oak trees, picnic on the grass.

 

There is also hiking, biking, camping, kayaking, paddle boarding and other recreational activities. Gorgeous vistas across the bay, and a healthy list of birds, too.

 

Concession Stand (still open on weekends)

Concession Stand (still open on weekends)

The village buildings have been preserved, open to the public for viewing and educational touring.

 

Gentle volunteers run the gift shop selling t-shirts, and there’s an old-fashioned concession stand with a photo inside of John Wayne who filmed a movie here with Lauren Bacall (Blood Alley).

 

The beauty that is humans reaching out, making plans, and achieving their goals is here. There have been ups and downs for centuries here, subjugation and conflict, and I suppose there will be more too.

 

China Camp overview

China Camp overview

But for today, we breathe in the briny air and soak up the California sun.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Golden Gate GraveyardMy new book , available for purchase.

Click here to purchase paperback or digital version from publisher

Digital ebook also available on Amazon and other etailers (paperback version not yet available at these sites).

 

When the Thrushes Return

Varied Thrush, male, California

Varied Thrush, male, California

It is in the autumn when the birds have left their summer breeding grounds, that we gratefully receive the thrushes in northern California.

 

We watch all summer long as the toyon bushes and madrone trees flower, then bear fruit. Toward late summer the berries grow bigger and start to turn from green to orange and red.  Here’s what we say, “It looks like the berries will be just right for the thrushes.”

 

Hermit Thrush on Toyon

Hermit Thrush on Toyon

If we are so lucky to get rain–and we have been this year–then the berries grow plump and they are perfect for the thrushes.

 

Not every year does it all turn out so well. If we have drought, the berries wither and drop to the ground. And the thrushes do not come.

 

But right now, our hillsides and forests are bright with the fresh new berries ripening in the autumn sun.

 

Our first hermit thrush arrived about two weeks ago — this is an event worth noting (and I do), for soon more will follow.  In the past few years there has been one quirky individual who arrives first and leaves last every season.

 

He’s not eating the berries yet, apparently they’re not perfectly ripe.

 

As ground birds, they can be seen hopping on the ground, or tugging at berries in the bushes. In addition to the berries, thrushes eat insects, worms, and snails.

 

And it is not just the hermit and varied thrushes that winter here, we also look forward to greeting the robins.

 

American Robin, Calif.

American Robin, Calif.

Robins, also in the Turdidae thrush family, come in flocks.  Whereas the hermit and varied thrushes are often individuals or in pairs, the robins come in very large flocks, sometimes as much as 100.

 

There are many genera and species of Turdidae in the world. (For more info click here.)

 

But here in northern California, we treasure our three fall thrushes, and avidly listen for the “chirrup” and chipping sounds, joining us for yet another winter.

 

American Robin eating toyon berry, Calif.

American Robin eating toyon berry, Calif.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Birds of Australia, Part 2 of 2

Nankeen Night Heron, Kakadu, Aus.

Nankeen Night Heron, Kakadu, Aus.

My previous post highlighted some of the many colorful and unusual birds of Australia, and today we’ll cover the little penguin and a few other special birds from Down Under.

 

Red-browed Finch, Australia

Red-browed Finch, Australia

One favorite sighting was the little penguin on Kangaroo Island, just off the southern coast.

 

Penguins are only found in the southern hemisphere, many reside in the colder climates of Antarctica. Flightless seabirds, penguins are warm-blooded, and have feathers and lay eggs like other birds.

 

Eudyptula minor Bruny 1.jpg

Little Penguin, Australia. Photo: J.J. Harrison, courtesy Wikipedia.

The little penguin, found in southern Australia and New Zealand, is the smallest penguin on earth.  More info here. 

 

A ranger had told us to go to this coastal corner at dark and look around the rocks. He warned not to turn on our “torch,” because that would startle them.

 

Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Aus.

Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Aus.

So there we were in the dark, tripping around between parked cars with steamy windows, looking for another bird.

 

Eventually, on the other side of the parked cars, a few quietly clambered toward us. I backed up, thinking it was three large rats. But then a few more appeared over the crest of some rocks, and we got a better look.

 

Wandering Whistling Ducks, Australia

Wandering Whistling Ducks, Australia

Only knee-high, they waddled among the rocks and in about ten minutes they had all disappeared into their burrows.

 

Another favorite was in Queensland on the mainland, in a rainforest. The rainforest is a cacophony of vibrant bird song; screeches, squawks, and screams burst forth from the tangle of palms and vines.

 

Magpie-lark, Granite Gorge, Aus.

Magpie-lark, Granite Gorge, Aus.

One bird song I found especially soothing was the onomatopoeic call of the Wompoo Fruit Dove.

 

This dove was especially difficult to see or photograph because they are well-hidden in the upper canopy, and have quiet ways.

 

Amid the loud whip sound of the Eastern Whipbird, and other shrieks, the wompoo dove has a gentle, almost human call: “wom-poo.”

 

Ptilinopus magnificus -North Queensland, Australia-8.jpg

Wompoo Fruit Dove, Australia. Photo: Jim Bendon, courtesy Wikipedia

Wompoo Dove sound, click here.

 

Other fun Australian bird anecdotes can be found on previously-written posts:

Spotted Catbird

Paradise Riflebird

Black Noddy

 

South Alligator River sunset, Kakadu, Aus.

South Alligator River sunset, Kakadu, Aus.

It’s impossible to share the hundreds of birds I experienced in Australia, but I trust the dozen or so I have highlighted in this series gave you a glimpse of the lively bird life in this country.

 

Emerald Dove, Australia

Emerald Dove, Australia

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

 

 

 

Wicked WalkaboutMystery novel I wrote set in Australia: e-book for $4.99 available here.