Driftwood Beach

Located on the U.S. Atlantic coast, Driftwood Beach immediately strikes you as a special place. Although it is one of many beaches in Georgia’s barrier islands, it stands out for the large, toppled trees that cover the sandy landscape.

Ocean tides and storms continually shape this Jekyll Island beach. Over the years the sand has eroded; removing the foundation for the roots to take hold, causing the trees to fall over.

I visited this unusual beach last week, following a family celebration.

The name implies ocean-drifted wood, but the trees that dominate the sandy expanse are not actually driftwood. They are prostrate pine, oak, and palm trees. This tree below, probably once an oak, still has the rootball intact.

The nature of coastal barrier islands is protection. There are approximately 14 barrier islands along the coast of Georgia, all of them coastal landforms created by waves and tidal action. The small islands, like Jekyll Island, take the brunt of the ocean’s wrath, protecting the mainland.

Jekyll Island is only seven miles (11 km) long and 1.5 miles (2.4 km) wide. While there are some hotels and human developments from various eras, there is a handsome array of natural sand dunes, marshes and wild habitats, attracting a wide array of wildlife.

My sister Nan spotted this skink on the trail leading to Driftwood Beach.

While many of the dead trees lie on the sand, there are also some dead ones that haven’t yet fallen. Giant, whole trees are standing, but lifeless.

My sister beside this tree demonstrates how huge the dead, standing tree is. Someday it will fall, but for now it remains solidly anchored in this spot.

There were dozens of dead trees dominating the beach. It was a unique sight. Most trees remained big and strong, not broken apart, and in spite of being leafless, they retained a proud elegance in their shapely limbs and roots.

Beachgoers strolled around the trees, some climbed on the trees, some sunbathed beside them, and children built sand castles in the fine, wet sand. Some people even host weddings here.

Osprey and pelicans sailed by. Willets and sandpipers scurried on the sand and rocks, while wading birds foraged on the adjacent marsh.

Across the waterway (St. Simons Sound) you can see another barrier island, St. Simon’s Island. Through this channel, cargo ships deliver goods, primarily automobiles. The yellow, arched structure seen from Jekyll Island is a giant crane. It’s one of the first things you see when you come out of the palmetto-studded trail and look out to sea.

The crane is straddling the shipwreck of the Golden Ray, a cargo ship that was carrying 4,200 cars when it capsized two years ago. The ship was improperly loaded and tipped over. Fortunately there were no fatalities, and clean-up of the shipwreck is nearly complete. The rusty heap to the right of the crane is what is left, and being cut, of the Golden Ray.

More Info: Golden Ray Wikipedia

More Info: Golden Isles of Georgia Wikipedia

We had a glorious day of ease and pleasure on Jekyll Island, watching birds, turtles, crabs, passing ships and ever-moving tides. But I’ll tell you more about this beautiful island another time.

For now, we’ll just bask in the briny air, expansive ocean, and lazing fallen trees of Driftwood Beach.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

A Salute to Summer

As we say farewell to summer, here is a small sample of the wildlife who entertained us these past few months. Summer provided us with a celebrated array of birds, insects, mammals and reptiles.

At the beginning of the season in May, we watched dozens of birds nesting around our property.

We found these bluebird eggs inside one of our nest boxes.

In addition to the usual resident nesters–swallows, bluebirds, juncos, chickadees, titmice, jays, towhees, wrens, and more–we hosted numerous migrant species.

Flycatchers, an often-overlooked migrant bird, were in abundance.

This Pacific-slope flycatcher mother (below, in center) vigilantly protected her nest and brood for many weeks. She chose a completely burned tree in which to nest, probably for uninterrupted visibility of predators.

This flycatcher, like the other migrant birds, had an industrious summer routine. They arrived in May, prepared a nest and filled it with eggs; then assisted their fledglings to become strong and independent. In August they all headed back home.

On cue with the summer routine, black-headed Grosbeaks arrived, and produced young ones.

The violet-green swallows arrived in April, vying with the bluebirds for nest box real estate. By July the sky was filled with soaring, acrobatic juveniles.

We welcomed several warbler species as well. Although we don’t have the same volume of spring migrating warblers on the west coast as the east coast or Midwest, every year we have several species who migrate through in the shoulder seasons, like this hermit warbler and orange-crowned warbler.

They come in when we turn on the yard sprinkler, a favorite summer pastime for all of us.

Throughout the summer a pair of sibling Cooper’s hawks, born here in spring, were prevalent in our backyard. I wrote about them in a previous post: Cooper’s Hawks, The Next Generation.

Their new prowess started out clumsy, but quickly became skilled, intimidating the wise and wary California quail from nesting on our property. Fortunately we saw large quail coveys with chicks all over our mountain.

We didn’t see as many snakes this year, but we had an abundance of Western fence lizards. Now, in early September, we have lots of little pinky-sized baby lizards skittering across the dust and rocks.

Living in drought here in Northern California, we have had our difficulties with fire and smoke lately. So far, the worst fires are a couple hundred miles north of us. It is a tense and smoky situation for us, but disastrous for our friends in the north.

During this current drought, water is a precious commodity. Our humble water tray offerings attract an animated parade of wildlife, day and night.

A bobcat comes through several nights a week.

Other regular night creatures include great horned owls, who frequently serenade us with duets, and deafening cicada choruses throughout every night. Dark dawns bring us individual bats silently zig-zagging the sky.

For comical daytime entertainment, we have a quirky gray squirrel who has taken to covering his back and head with his tail. He does it all the time.

Maybe he’s just an odd dude, or maybe he’s decided to use his tail as an umbrella to shield from the blazing sun. Whatever his story, we love him. We call him Davy, for his resemblance to a Davy Crockett hat.

Brush rabbits appreciate the water tray too.

It’s been so hot and dry lately that birds we don’t ordinarily see at the water tray came in this summer for drinks and baths. The outdoor camera captures this screech owl at the water tray regularly.

Yesterday I noticed this Cooper’s hawk at the water tray for an hour. We have also watched him vigorously bathing here. On sizzling hot days, he stands right in the water, probably regulating his body temperature.

I do love summer for the plethora of wildlife and their activities, but I am looking forward to the fall, too. Cooler temperatures and some rain to douse the earth would be dreamy.

But what a lively and lovely summer it has been.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

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.

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.

Brown Creeper Story

There is a novel member of the bird kingdom who blends in so perfectly to its environment that few non-birders know about it. I am happy to share a recent encounter.

The brown creeper is relatively small, and is almost always found on trees. They are a woodland songbird. The bird’s back is primarily black and brown with textured patterning, and it camouflages into the tree bark so remarkably that seeing it is nearly impossible.

An insect-eating bird, they have a slender decurved bill perfect for digging into tree bark and plucking out beetles, aphids, caterpillars, ants, spiders and others.

More Brown Creeper info – allaboutbirds.org

Much like a nuthatch, they make their way up a tree in a spiral pattern, then flutter back to the bottom of the next tree and repeat the same spiraling hunt. The fluttering moment is usually the only time you really see them. They use their stiff tails for support and are consequently adept at foraging upside down.

They have a sound too, but it is very high-pitched and often muted by louder creatures. Click here to hear.

One day last month, Athena and I hiked through the forest on our morning walk. It was nesting time in the forest.

That morning we had already checked on the raven nest, the bluebird nest, and the Pacific-slope flycatcher nest.

While Athena was photographing, I noticed some unusual brown creeper behavior and my eyes followed an adult going to an obscure crack in the bark of a California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica) tree.

Then she vanished into the crack.

In that moment I heard the characteristic sound of hungry cheeping nestlings being fed, and knew I had found a creeper nest.

We watched a few minutes more and realized the nest was safely wedged behind the bark of this towering bay tree.

For days we watched the nest, and each new day the voices of the nestlings became stronger. Visions of new creepers danced in our heads.

Then one morning we came out and saw part of the trunk had crashed down in the night. The nest. Oh no, the nest.

This forest was severely damaged in wildfires. Many of the surviving trees look like they’re fine, but often a limb will just drop. Or sometimes a tree looks like it’s recovering and growing, and then one day the whole thing keels over.

Before the fires, this bay tree was an admirable one–huge and strong with multiple trunks. But you can see it has suffered from the fires, bark has lifted from the tree or fallen off in several places; it’s not as mighty as it once was. But it’s great for creepers, who like the rippled bark for nesting.

We studied the damage and soon realized the trunk piece that had fallen was separate from the nest.

So our hearts once again lifted.

Here you can see freshly ripped wood (left trunk) and a large hunk on the ground underneath (lower center). An arrow indicates where the nest is.

We stood there in anticipation, waiting to see if the parent was still tending the nest…and she was. They might have had a roller coaster night with the big next-door trunk cracking and dropping, but the nest remained safe.

Coyote, bobcat and fox come through on this trail regularly. We find new scat and fresh divots every morning, so a nest loaded with defenseless babies on the ground could have been disastrous.

Another day while we were photographing the creeper nest, a dark-eyed junco started scolding and harassing the parent creepers.

We soon discovered that the juncos had a nest, too, hidden in a hole beside a big rock that we were clambering around to see the creepers. We moved away and then all was well again.

As the month of June unfolded, the creeper voices continued to become even stronger.

Then one magical morning it happened.

The nestlings had become so developed that their little heads were starting to poke out of the bark. Both parents were industriously catching insects and delivering them to the nest. With binoculars, we could see their little heads.

One parent would arrive, present the insect, then fly off; and soon the other parent would do the same, and this continued for at least a half hour. It was a dizzying pace.

This parent has a spider in its bill, taking it to the nest.

And another.

At one point there was a slight pause in the delivery, and the voices raised to a louder, more emphatic volume as the impatient nestlings were forced to wait a few extra minutes.

And then one of the little chicks suddenly, and quite naturally, emerged out of the nest and started plodding up the tree.

Two siblings watched while the eldest left the nest.

Soon another sibling left…and then there was one.

Then all three were out. There was quite a bit of commotion, with their high-pitched peeping and the parents trying to keep up, flying after them and catching insects. We were all very excited.

The fledglings did not venture too far, but now they were learning to fly and feed and make their way around independently.

This fledgling was learning how to use its still-short tail to balance.

One tyke tumbled off an oak limb, but it extended its wings in a desperate struggle and landed softly. It was fine.

We think there might have been a fourth nestling, it seemed there was shadowy activity inside the tree bark crevasse. But that day it did not show itself.

And the next day when we returned, there were no creepers, nor have there been any since then. They have all moved on.

It was fortunate we were there at the right time to watch this nest full of baby birds on their maiden flights fledging into the forest.

You just never know where or when a miracle is going to happen.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

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.

A Dozen Birds You’ve Never Heard Of

Whether we are familiar with just our local birds, or more, few people know ALL the birds. With more than 10,000 different bird species in the world, there are bound to be some that even the birdiest humans have not heard of. Have fun with this list of a dozen–see if there is even one you know.

1. Water Dikkop.

In the Okavango Delta of Botswana lives this long-legged bird in the thick-knee family. Burhinus vermiculatus, also known as a water thick-knee, is about 15-16 inches (38-41 cm) tall. They are found near water in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and as you can see, it does have thick knees, for which it is named.

2. Paradise Riflebird.

This handsome bird only exists in rainforests of eastern Australia. Lophorina paradisea is in the same family as the show-stopping Birds of Paradise. The male performs an elaborate display in breeding season. (See photo at end, of this bird displaying.) They are about the size of a small falcon. The name “riflebird” refers to the male’s plumage that is iridescent black-green in certain light, resembling the uniform of the British Army Rifle Brigade.

3. Yellow-winged Cacique.

Found primarily in the tropical lowlands of west Mexico, Cassiculus melanicterus is a large, bold, and loud bird; reminiscent of a jay in personality but not at all related. They have a floppy crest which you see on each side of the head here. Pronounced “ka-seek.”

4. Violaceous Euphonia.

A Neotropical songbird in the finch family, Euphonia violacea is such a stunning bird that it is featured on a Trinidad/Tobago postage stamp. They are found in several parts of South America and Trinidad/Tobago. The word “euphonia” is of Greek origin and translates to “sweet-voiced.” (There’s a second Euphonia species at the end.)

5. Red-billed Francolin.

Pternistis adspersus is found in a few countries in South Africa, and is also known as the red-billed spurfowl for the spur on its heel. In the same family as the partridge and pheasant, and resembling quail, they are denizens of the grass where they eat insects, vegetable matter, and seeds.

6. Snowcap.

Found in several Central American countries, the snowcap is in the hummingbird family. Microchera albocoronata is one of the smallest hummingbirds. We enjoyed a sighting of this unusual hummingbird, obviously named for his snowy white cap, on a Costa Rican mountain slope. There are about 360 species of hummingbirds–so many that they can’t all be named hummingbirds. All found in the Americas, hummingbirds have many different names like coronet, hermit, and woodstar.

Break Time.

At this point we have covered half of the dozen birds. If you have never heard of one of them, how wonderful for you to now have learned six new birds on our planet. If you are familiar with several, that’s equally as wonderful. Let’s celebrate with this bird we’ve all heard of. They inhabit every continent except Antarctica: the wise old owl.

7. Coppery-tailed Coucal.

There are about 30 species of coucals, a large Old World bird in the cuckoo family. Centropus cupreicaudus is named for it’s reddish-brown tail, but that dazzling red eye is also noteworthy. Derivation of “coucal” comes from the spurs or claws that many coucal species have.

8. Capped Wheatear.

This is a passerine, or songbird, that we found in Zambia. I never forget this name because I could be named the same. The name “wheatear” translates from “white arse,” which you can see in this photo below. They are primarily Old World birds, but a species or two have established in Canada and Greenland. Oenanthe pileata graces the grasslands with its melodic warbling sound, where it feeds mostly on ants.

9. Red-capped Manakin.

Manakins are entertaining birds for the mating dances the male performs in breeding–one of my favorite species. They buzz and snap their wings and perform spectacular lekking courtship rituals. There are 54 species, all found in the American tropics. We have witnessed 6 or 8 male manakins lekking, but they zip past like a bullet and are nearly impossible to photograph. We were thrilled to find this solo Ceratopipra mentalis quietly drinking and bathing in a creek deep in the rainforest of Belize. The name is from Middle Dutch mannekijn “little man.”

10. Collared Pratincole.

Pratincoles are found in the Old World where they are in the wader (aka shorebird) suborder. With short legs and pointed wings, they can catch insects on the fly, like swallows–an unusual trick for a shorebird. We found this Glareola pratincola in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, Africa. The name “pratincole” comes from the Latin words prātum meadow and incola resident, although they are more water resident than meadow.

11. Black-crowned Tityra.

A medium-sized songbird, titiyras can be found in parts of Mexico, Central America, South America and Trinidad. They feed on fruit and insects, and often lay their eggs in woodpecker nests, so you almost always see them in trees. We spotted this Tityra inquisitor in Costa Rica, but they are common in many Central and South American countries.

12. Spangled Drongo.

Drongos are also a songbird species, found in the Old World tropics. They are named for their forked tails: from Greek dikros “forked” and oura “tail.” Some drongos have elaborate tail decorations, like the Dicrurus bracteatus photographed here. There is only one drongo species in Australia, so we were lucky to find this showy bird with its bright red eyes and decorative markings, singing a complex call in the rainforest.

However many names you recognized, the good news is there’s at least 10,000 more, so striving to know them all will keep us busy for a lifetime. If you previously knew none of them, you’ve learned a lot today.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Wild Parrots

There are approximately 398 species of parrots in the world. They live primarily in tropical and subtropical countries. Let’s immerse ourselves in this wonderfully garish and charismatic bird.

Parrots are classified under the Order Psittaciformes and this includes cockatoos, lorikeets, parakeets, macaws and of course parrots. All birds featured here are wild parrots (photographed pre-Covid).

When you spot a wild parrot, the first surprise is its stunningly bright colors. The bird’s color palette is in full swing–blues, reds, yellows, oranges and lime greens.

But even with their splashy colors, they’re not always as conspicuous as you might think.

This mealy parrot blends in perfectly with the trees.

We spotted this yellow-naped parrot (Amazona auropalliata) from aboard a small boat on a river. You can see how much this green and yellow parrot blends into the background.

Focusing further, you see that a parrot’s bill is magnificent. It is not fused to the skull, allowing it to move independently and also contributing to tremendous biting pressure. A large macaw, like this one below, has the same bite force as a large dog.

The strong bill and jaw helps parrots to crack open hard nuts; their dexterous tongues work out the seeds.

With eyes positioned high on the skull, a parrot can see over and even behind its head.

Even their feet are impressive. Their zygodactyl toes (two toes face forward, two toes face backward) give them dexterity similar to a human’s hand. You can see how this cockatoo, about the size of a small puppy, can effortlessly balance on flimsy branches.

Wikipedia Parrot

Their intelligence is extraordinary. As a highly social creature, they converse frequently among themselves and develop distinct local dialects. They use their local dialects to distinguish familiar members of the flock, and ostracize the unfamiliar members.

You always know when parrots are nearby for the loud squawking you hear among their flocks. They can also be trained to imitate human speech and other sounds.

Unfortunately, their intelligence and beauty have made them attractive as pets for humans, leading to much trouble for parrots. Illegal trapping of wild parrots for the pet trade has led to near-extinction of many parrot species. Pet birds should always be purchased from a reputable source.

Wikipedia International Parrot Trade

Macaws are parrots found only in the New World. We trekked to a macaw lick one dawn morning in Peru, to watch these red-and-green macaws.

They extract and eat minerals out of the clay river bank to neutralize natural toxins they have ingested. Post I wrote about it: The Macaw Lick.

Of the 350+ parrot species in the world, 56 can be found in Australia. If you are looking to see parrots in the wild, this continent is a joy for spotting parrots.

Eucalyptus trees (aka “gum trees” to Australians) and other flowering trees supply the diet for many parrot species.

Cockatoos, one of the largest parrots, can be seen in Australia’s urban and rural settings.

We came upon this large cockatoo flock foraging in the fields.

A bold and kaleidoscopic bird that can talk, fly, climb, bite like a dog and see behind its head. That’s a talented bird.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Parrot range.png
Range Map: Parrots. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Sacramento Valley Winter Migration

We are blessed in Northern California every winter with the arrival of millions of geese and ducks. Arriving from Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, the birds spend the winter here on the Pacific Flyway.

The Pacific Flyway is one of four bird migration routes in North America (see map at end). Some waterfowl don’t stay long, they migrate further south in fall. Others stay here for the winter, taking advantage of the mild temperatures. Migratory waterfowl populations peak from Thanksgiving through February. After that, the birds return north to begin breeding.

Roughly 3 million ducks and 1 million geese spend the winter here, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Pacific Flyway Wikipedia

The migratory ducks and geese can be seen all over the Bay Area and surrounding counties, but 44% of them flock to California’s Sacramento Valley. There are several refuges in the valley, the biggest is Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge where there is a self-guided auto tour.

More info: Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex Wikipedia

While most of the Pacific Flyway’s natural wetlands have disappeared in the past 100 years, in the 1930s and 1940s several agencies were formed when the waterfowl populations began to decline. Refuges were established and water diversion projects were eventually set in place. The diverted water aids with agricultural needs and attracts the migrating waterfowl as well.

Today, managers, biologists and refuge workers maintain more than 35,000 acres (14,164 hectares) of wetlands in the Sacramento Valley. Local farmers work cooperatively with agencies, allowing their rice fields to be flooded every winter.

Due to current Covid stay-at-home conditions, we have not yet visited the Sacramento Valley this winter; most photos here are from our visit last winter.

In addition to the millions of geese and ducks, other birds and mammals join the raucous scene.

We spotted these jubilant river otters in a water-filled ditch where they were gorging on fish.

In between waves of wildly noisy geese constantly landing, taking off, and filling the sky, there are over 200 species of other birds enjoying the safe, protected waters.

Songbirds abound, like this western meadowlark.

Egrets and herons are commonly seen, and raptors hunt from the winter-bare treetops.

These ibis were probing their long bills in the mud, actively fishing. They eat crayfish, insects, invertebrates and fish.

We were fortunate to spot this American Bittern through the reeds. They are solitary, elusive birds, difficult to photograph. They extend their necks and look to the sky when they are trying to hide.

Another elusive bird, the ring-necked pheasants shimmered in the sun. Last year we spotted about two dozen individuals, more than usual.

Sandhill cranes are a treasured migratory species that winter in the Sacramento Valley, too.

There are also millions of migratory ducks occupying the refuge waters.

One recent year at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge it was a blustery, rainy day. We came upon this victorious shrike and drenched brush rabbit.

Geese honking, ducks cruising, water sparkling, raptors soaring. Another heaven on earth–this one, a wetland paradise.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Waterfowl Flyways in the United States. 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