Unusual Birds for Unusual Times

Male Frigatebird in breeding, Seymour Island, Galapagos

During this homebound time, here are some of my favorite unusual-looking birds from around the world.

 

There are so many lovely creatures in this world, each one unique in its own way. But some are especially different-looking; for today I narrowed it down to 12 birds.

 

Bird #1. Male Frigatebird in breeding (above). We worked and saved for two years to see this sight. This exquisite seabird comes to land only to breed, we were determined to observe his remarkable display; journeyed to a remote island in the Galapagos.

 

The male’s pouch inflates and deflates. He spends a lot of energy to inflate his red gular (throat) pouch to attract females. Once it is inflated, he pounds on the balloon-like body part with his wings; makes booming sounds and vocalizations.

 

After the male has found his damsel, the pouch deflates and the business of preparing for the new chick begins.

 

Bird #2. Nothern Potoo. A nocturnal bird, they perch on the end of sticks, flying out to catch insects and returning to their perch.  Nyctibius jamaicensis blends into the perch, rendering it nearly impossible to spot.

 

Our guide took us in a small motorboat to a Mexican marsh.

Northern Potoo, Mexico

 

There are over 300 different hummingbird species in the world. Many of us have seen hummingbirds or photos of them, yet I found the two following hummingbirds particularly unique-looking.

 

Bird #3. Tufted Coquette. With that punk orange hairstyle, polka-dotted wings and iridescence, its not like any hummingbird I’ve ever seen…and I’ve seen a lot. We spotted him deep in a Trinidad rainforest.

Tufted coquette, male, Trinidad

 

Bird #4. Another memorable hummingbird is the snowcap. Microchera albocoronata is in a genus all its own. They are tiny birds, the male is reddish purple with a bright white cap. Even beneath the dark canopy of the Costa Rican rainforest, that snowy white cap could be spotted fairly easily.

Snowcap Hummingbird, Costa Rica

 

Bird #5. The Resplendent Quetzal. The male has long tail streamers, and the female has the same exquisite colors as the male, sans tail streamers. They eat avocadoes, so a guide took us to a wild avocado grove in the Chiriquí Highlands of Costa Rica.

 

Avocadoes that are not bred for human consumption are small, apricot-sized. These gorgeous birds were elegantly shimmering and fluttering from one tree to the next. They were not-so-elegantly eating: swallowing the avocado whole, then spitting out the pit. I vote this the most beautiful bird I have ever seen.

Resplendent Quetzal, male, Costa Rica

 

Bird #6. Cock-of-the-Rock. One of the strangest birds I have ever seen. We waited in the morning dark, in an Andes lek where males gather to perform courtship dances for the female. This bright orange male struts, bobs and hops while vocalizing a cacophony of staccato sounds. That morning there were five or six males vying for one female; she flew off solo after the show.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Peru. Photo: B. Page

 

Before we leave the western hemisphere, I want to show you a lovable strange bird who inhabits the deserts in southwestern and south-central United States. We saw it in southern California.

 

Bird #7. The Roadrunner. Clocked at 20 miles an hour (32 km/h), this bird is speedy. This creature was the star and namesake of the old Warner Brothers cartoons, the Road Runner Show. There’s a reason Wile E. Coyote never caught the roadrunner….

Roadrunner, California. Photo: Athena Alexander

Sporting a long tail and perky crest, Geococcyx californianus hunts lizards and snakes. You see them sprinting more than flying, though they can fly.

 

The other side of the world is also loaded with unusual-looking birds. Here are a few we found in Africa and Australia.

 

Bird #8. The hamerkop is a wading bird, found in Africa, and is most closely related to pelicans. The color is unremarkable brown, but the shape of the head is highly conspicuous, appearing to look like a hammer. Its name means “hammerhead” in Afrikaans.

Hamerkop, Zambia, Africa

 

Bird #9. The secretary bird is a long-legged raptor. The lower half of the legs are featherless, the crest has quill-like feathers.  Sagittarius serpentarius stomps prey with its muscular legs, and uses the large, hooked eagle-like bill to strike.

Secretary Bird, Africa. Photo Athena Alexander

 

Bird #10. Far less ferocious are the African hornbills. There are several species of hornbills, this one is the red-billed. Their conspicuous bill gives them a distinguished, albeit odd, appearance.

Red-billed Hornbill pair, Zambia

 

Bird #11. Vulturine Guineafowl in Africa. In a land of vast savannahs, guineafowl are large, gregarious birds who eat insects and seeds in the grasses. You often see large flocks of them pecking the ground, like chickens. The Vulturine species, Acryllium vulturinum, has elegant markings.

Vulturine Guineafowl, Kenya, Africa

 

Bird #12. By far the oddest bird of all, the Southern Cassowary has a large casque atop its head, large bristly black body, long legs and neck, bright colors, and two dangling red wattles at the throat. We were birding deep in the rainforest in Queensland with a guide when we unknowingly came close to a cassowary’s nest. We had accidentally agitated the male.

Southern Cassowary, Australia

As big as humans, a cassowary has a large spike on its foot and can land a fatal blow to anyone in his way. We didn’t have long to chat with him.

 

Of course there are many more unusual birds in this world, as well as insects, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals.

 

As we all go through this unusual mammalian pandemic, try to remember that the world is full of odd animals.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Two Runners-Up:

Crested Guans, Costa Rica

 

Emu, Mareeba Wetlands, Australia

 

Jet (L) and Athena on Galapagos. Trees with breeding frigatebird colony in background.

 

 

Geckos and Birds at the Painted Church

There is a humble tourist attraction on Hawaii’s Big Island called the Painted Church. It is one of my favorite Hawaiian spots with its quiet presence and tropical landscape, on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

 

When we visited last month, a house finch and gecko were together in this papaya tree on the church grounds.

 

This bright and exotic gecko lives on three of the Hawaiian Islands. Gold Dust Day Gecko. 

Gold Dust Day Gecko, Hawaii

This is not a pair you usually see together, but it was easy to see why.

House Finch, Hawaii

The house finch had found a lusciously ripe papaya and had used his strong bill to open the fruit. The gecko was taking advantage of the opened fruit, called in the gang.

 

Geckos feed on fruit, nectar, and insects, and you can see the smorgasbord they were enjoying that day.

 

Six Geckos, Hawaii

There are 1,500 species of geckos in the world. This particular species, Phelsuma laticauda laticauda, is diurnal, active during the day. They are native to Northern Madagascar.

 

Papaya Tree, Hawaii

 

Many birds came into the papaya trees that day.

 

Saffron Finch in Papaya Tree, Hawaii

There are always many butterflies and birds visiting the fruit trees and flowering plants at The Painted Church. I have never seen a lot of tourists visit the church–it’s out of the way–and those who do visit go inside the church, stay five minutes, and drive away.

 

It is so named for the interior that is painted with a unique combination of biblical and Hawaiian themes.

Painted Church interior, Hawaii

The church is more formally named St. Benedict’s Catholic Church, built in 1899. Belgian Catholic missionary Father John Velghe painted the frescoes. They still hold regular Sunday services here.

 

The adjacent cemetery shows the black lava that is so prevalent on this volcanic island. Every time I visit, it is dancing with butterflies.

Painted Church cemetery, Hawaii. Pacific Ocean on horizon.

 

This juvenile gecko in the cemetery was the length of my thumb.

Juvenile Gecko, Hawaii

For over a hundred years people and butterflies and birds have been visiting this tranquil spot on the hill. Thousands of people have stood on the lava sidewalk looking out over the Pacific Ocean. I’m glad to be one of them.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Yellow-billed Cardinal on Papaya Tree, Hawaii

 

The Raven

Raven, Point Lobos, California

This all-black bird has either fascinated or intimidated humans for centuries. I am one of the fascinated fans. Corvus corax  have a versatile and wide-ranging diet; a full repertoire of vocalizations; and a rare ability to problem-solve.

 

A member of the Corvid family, the most intelligent birds on the planet, ravens have captivated humans for centuries. Hundreds of scientific studies and thousands of observations continue to prove how advanced a raven’s thinking is.

 

Corvids include crows, jays, magpies, rooks, jackdaws, and more.  Common Raven Wikipedia.

 

At the Golden Gate Bridge, SF skyline in background

 

They reside in our planet’s northern hemisphere; see range maps at end.

 

This photograph offers a good size comparison between a bald eagle (left) and a raven (right). It was very rainy day and we were all drenched and a little cranky.

Bald eagle (juvenile) on left, raven on right. Sacramento NWR, CA

 

It can be difficult to distinguish the difference between a raven and a crow. They look very much alike, differences are subtle.

 

Here are a few of the differences that help me with identification:

  • The raven is the larger of the two birds;
  • Adult ravens usually travel in pairs, whereas crows are often seen in large flocks;
  • The call of a raven is a deeper croak than the crow;
  • Ravens like large expanses of open land, while crows are more often seen in densely populated areas;
  •  A raven’s tail, which you can see well in the photograph below, has varying lengths and tapers into a rounded wedge shape; whereas a crow’s tail has feathers all the same length, the end is straight across.

Raven in flight

More info for distinguishing the two here.

 

Raven

 

We have a raven pair on our property who often come to roost at the end of the day. After the sun has set, I hear them call to each other. Caw, caw, caw says one. Then I hear the other one reply: caw, caw, caw. They can go on like this for several minutes. I think they’re discussing which tree to spend the night in.

 

Here they were captured by our camera trap. They are keen to collect our offering of mice, caught in traps from our storage space. Look closely in the right raven’s mouth. They take the mice and fly off with their cache; circle this stump from above on their daily hunting route.

 

Even the Tower of London has a long history with ravens.

 

Not everyone, including Edgar Allan Poe, find ravens to be a delight. But even Mr. Poe, in his poem, found them to be mysterious.

 

Common Raven, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

Big and raucous, and sporting the all-black color of the underworld, ravens have an intimidating effect on some cultures.

 

If you happen to see a raven blinking in a moment when their extra protective eyelid, the nictitating membrane, is revealed, they can look eerie.

Raven revealing nictitating membrane in eye

 

But observe them long enough and you hear dozens of creative vocalizations that you never knew were possible. You see barrel rolls and aerobatic displays that can only be interpreted as one thing: fun.

 

You see enough of the fun and games of ravens…and you’re hooked for life.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

 

Range Map for Common Raven

North America Range Map for Common Raven, courtesy allaboutbirds.org

Corvus corax map.jpg

World Map, Common Raven Range, courtesy Wikipedia

Jubilee and Munin, two of the London Tower’s ravens in 2016. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Welcoming 2020

Giant Eagle Owl, aka Verreaux’s Owl, Botswana, Africa

As we step forward into a fresh new year, and decade, here are some wise words from a few of my wild friends.

 

Greet each day with a smile.

Crocodile, Kakadu Nat’l. Park, Australia

 

Enjoy the search for life’s nectar.

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Belize

 

Wear your true colors …

Yellow Tangs, Big Island, Hawaii

but on crabby days, lay low.

Sally Lightfoot Crab, Galapagos Islands

 

Eat good foods …

House Finch, Gold Dusk Gecko Eating Papaya, Hawaii

and drink plenty of water.

Young African Elephant Drinking Water, Botswana, Africa

 

Share the resources.

Bighorn Sheep and Moose at pond, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado

 

Wildlife, who have to physically work for every bite, like to remind us humans of the importance of movement. They tell us to …

Exercise …

Sable, Botswana, Africa

and stretch.

Leopard, Tanzania, Africa

 

I’ve watched plenty of wildlife simply having fun, especially ravens.

Common Raven, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

Wildlife remind us to:

Hang out with our mates …

Grey-headed Flying Fox colony, Sydney, Australia

and cherish our loved ones.

Baird’s Tapir, juvenile and mother, Belize

 

Try to get along with everyone …

Hippo with heron, Zambia, Luangwa Valley, Africa

but when it’s not possible, take leave.

Humpback Whale, Kenai, Alaska

And because we are granted many days in each new year, there are bound to be some bad days too. The wisdom there is:

When life gives you dung, be a dung beetle.

Dung Beetle, Serengeti, Kenya, Africa

 

It’s good to be industrious …

Leafcutter Ant with leaf spear, Belize

but don’t forget to take time to perch …

Keel-billed Toucan, Belize

and relax.

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

 

Never stop singing …

Dickcissel, Texas

and just keep hopping.

Grey Kangaroos, Australia

 

Wishing you the best in 2020, my friends. Thanks for sharing the sparks of 2019 with me.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Blue Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Kenya, Africa

 

Long-tailed Birds

Resplendent Quetzal (male), Costa Rica

 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher (male), Belize

Every once in a while I come across a bird with a spectacularly long tail. It happened last month with this Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Belize. When the bird flies, his long tail ripples gracefully in the wind.

 

One day long ago, while I was still in birding classes, I was standing in my mother’s backyard, a suburb near Dallas not far from fields. I looked up and saw a beautiful bird on the telephone lines with the longest tail I had ever seen in my life. Later I was to learn it was the scissor-tailed flycatcher, not uncommon in Texas.

 

And since then, I have had the pleasure of collecting many beautiful images of birds with lengthy tails.

 

We were flying down a Mexican highway in a cab one day, when we spotted this jay on the lines. Screeched to a halt.

 

Black-throated Magpie Jay (male), Mexico

 

In some long-tailed bird species, only the male has the long tail; in other species, like motmots, both genders have the long tail.

 

There are numerous evolution theories as to why a species has a long tail. Most theories posit that the male’s long tail is a signal to the female of good breeding foundation.

 

Some species have cord-like streamers, whereas others, like my favorite the resplendent quetzal, have more of a double ribbon for a tail.

 

Motmots, a colorful Neotropic bird, have long tails shaped like racquets.

 

Turquoise-browed Motmot, Costa Rica

 

This hummingbird has a racquet-tail too.

Booted Racket-tail Hummingbird (male), Peru

 

One of the most striking birds on the planet, the resplendent quetzal male has a long tail that sparkles in the sunlight. For an hour we watched this male in a Costa Rican mountain rainforest eating avocadoes. Then when he was satiated, he flew on.

 

We instinctively ran after him, enchanted by the magic, the beauty.

 

Undulating behind this showy bird, the iridescent tail shimmered and flowed in the most natural ribbon-like spectacle. Eventually the bird disappeared into the forest.

 

Resplendent Quetzal (male), Costa Rica

 

In the red-billed tropicbird, the male’s tail streamer is slightly longer than the female’s, about 4.7 inches (12 cm).

 

We once went to a breeding colony of tropicbirds on the island of Little Tobago in the West Indies. The tropicbirds were competing with frigatebirds over food, and the guide told us that sometimes a frigatebird would pluck at a tropicbird’s long streamers, try to pull it out.

 

Red-billed Tropicbird, Little Tobago Island, West Indies

 

Birds that wear party streamers for tails:  they make you want to sing and dance and go a little wild.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Indian Peacock in Texas

 

Raptors in Autumn

Barred Owl, Texas

Every fall thousands and thousands of raptors in North America migrate south for the winter as their food supplies begin to wane. Here are some basic facts about raptors and where to find them as we enter into the northern hemisphere’s autumn.

 

Also known as birds of prey, raptors include many different species. Some more commonly known raptors are: eagles, ospreys, kites, hawks, vultures, falcons, and owls.

Osprey in Mangroves

Not all raptors migrate. It depends on how cold the winters get, if there is enough available prey. We are fortunate in Northern California to see many raptor species in all seasons.

 

Other parts of the country, however, have consistently cold winter weather and, consequently, raptor migration every autumn.

 

Snail Kite

 

Although raptor migration lasts roughly between August and November, late September is the prime time for watching these grand birds.

 

Bald Eagle, California. This raptor almost went extinct.

With their sturdy wings and broad wing-spans, they utilize upward air currents, i.e. thermals, to assist with their long flights. The migrating populations concentrate along mountain ridge lines, coast lines, and other topographical features to take advantage of the updrafts.

 

See the map below for raptor migration pathways in North America.

Merlin, Sacramento NWR, California

American Kestrel, California

Turkey vulture pair on fence, drying wings; Calif. coast

 

There are numerous predictable spots for hawkwatching in North America, where anyone can observe migrating raptors, especially hawks.

 

Two popular U.S. hawkwatch stations I have visited are Cape May, NJ on the east coast; and Hawk Hill outside San Francisco on the west coast. Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania is the most famous hawkwatch station in the U.S.

Red-tailed Hawk in rain, California

 

Cooper’s Hawk, California

 

Because migrating hawks fly high over land masses, the birds are usually far away from us ground-dwellers. Raptor migration birding, therefore, engages in a different kind of bird-observing technique. There are no bird sounds or calls, and no close-up views for bird identification. Instead, birders systematically scan the sky with binoculars or scopes; and identify the species by silhouette, profile, size, plumage, and flight behavior.

 

Many times I have stood beside hawkwatchers with my own high-powered binoculars looking at what they look at, as they call out their sightings. Usually, to the bare eye, the hawk is the size of a rice grain.

 

Data is recorded and posted daily. The information gleaned from it is paramount in raptor conservation.

 

Osprey, Florida

 

Red-tailed hawk with chick, California

 

California Condor, Calif. — another raptor we almost lost to extinction

 

Great Horned Owlet, California

 

Raptors are important birds for providing our planet with a healthy ecosystem.

 

Raptor Conservation Wikipedia

 

If you are interested in finding a Hawkwatch venue in North America, hawkcount.org provides links to approximately one hundred sites.

 

For folks who just enjoy seeing a powerful bird soaring overhead, now is a good time of year to keep your eyes open and your neck craned.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander, all North American raptors

PS – For my friends–you’ll be happy to know Athena and I are moving  home tomorrow, after 11.5 months displacement following the October 2017 Wine Country fires. This is our ninth and final move in the post-fire event. Our own migration.

 

Hawk Mountain Raptor Migration Path Map

North American Raptor Migration Pathways. Courtesy hawkmountain.org

 

Human-sized Birds

Southern Cassowary, Queensland, Australia

There are four bird species on the planet that are as tall as humans: the Ratites. They are all flightless.

 

Birds that are classified as ratites are so-named from the Latin ratis, for raft. A raft is a vessel that has no keel, and a ratite is a bird that has no keel. In bird anatomy, feather muscles attach to the keel or sternum (breastbone); and if there is no keel, the bird is flightless.

Emu, Mareeba Wetlands, Queensland

In an earlier era, there were more ratites on earth. Today there are these four tall species–ostrich, emu, cassowary, rhea–and New Zealand’s dwindling population of small ratites, the kiwis.

 

Ratite Wikipedia

Southern Cassowary adult with chicks, Queensland, Australia

They date back 56 million years, and look as prehistoric as they are–large round bodies on long legs, with long necks.

 

Ratites have two- or three-toed feet, often used for kicking, and lay very large eggs, the largest in the world. Omnivores, they prefer roots, seeds, and leaves; but will also eat insects or small animals if necessary. They have wings but do not fly, and instead run at very fast speeds.

Ostrich, male, East Africa

Ostrich. The largest and heaviest land bird in the world…and also the fastest. With strong legs, they can sprint up to 43 miles per hour (70 kph), and maintain a steady speed of 31 mph (50 kph).

 

They also have the largest eyes of any land invertebrate. With their excellent eyesight, nine foot height (2.8m), and sprinting abilities, ostriches have many ways to escape African predators.

Ostrich Pair, resting, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

We usually found them in the tall African grass in small groups of three and four. They disappeared quickly whenever our jeep approached, running with long strides.

 

Emus can only be found in Australia. They are the second-largest bird, after the ostrich, reaching up to 6.2 feet tall (1.9m). They were prominent in ancient Aboriginal mythology, and remain revered in Australia today as the national bird.

Australian Coat of Arms, emu on right

Emus at Mareeba Wetlands

One sizzling day on a remote preserve in Mareeba, Queensland, we were visited by a group of four emus. We were under shade, looking out at the dusty, deserted landscape when an emu soundlessly approached from around the corner. We remained still, waiting to see what would happen.

 

Then another one came along, and two more. They had their heads down, nibbling, walking around in search of food.

 

They stayed so long that eventually we moved on.

 

Cassowary.  Another Australian ratite, they can also be found in New Guinea, Indonesia, and a few nearby islands…but there are very few left in the world. This is the third tallest bird in the world, after ostrich and emu.

 

Southern Cassowary, male, Australia

While many of the cassowary features are similar to the aforementioned ratites, its unique head casque, made of keratin, is exclusive. They are also the most brightly colored of the four tall ratites, and most dangerous, known to kill humans with their blade-like foot claw.

 

Every Australian we talked to said they had never seen a cassowary and we wouldn’t either.

 

Not only did we see one, we saw several, and one experience was more than memorable, it was terrifying.

Daintree Cassowary Crossing

We were in the rainforest with our guide when a male cassowary approached us. For about one minute he was unperturbed. Then he started walking slowly around in a circle with stiff legs, sort of stomping. Our guide, in a calculated calm voice quietly said, “It’s time to leave.”

 

Although we backed up and gave the cassowary his space, the bird advanced. The guide whispered his instructions: do not turn your backs, do not run. So we continued backing up–Athena, the guide, and I. But the cassowary continued advancing.

 

Our guide quickly tried something else. He stood beside a large tree, forming a sort of shield; told us to continue backing up behind his shield. We backed ourselves out of the forest and waited for the guide. Ten long minutes later, the guide joined us.

 

We didn’t know it, but apparently we were near the cassowary’s hidden ground nest.

 

The rhea is the only tall ratite I have not seen. Grassland birds that look much like the ostrich and emu, rheas live in different parts of South America.

Greater rhea pair arp.jpg

Greater Rhea. Photo Adrian Pingstone. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

There might be a day when I see a rhea in the wild, and then I will have the privilege of saying I’ve seen all four human-sized ratites.

 

But I’m in no hurry for this, because I’ve had so many exhilarating ratite experiences…enough to last me a lifetime.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander, except rhea

Australian Emu