Nesting House Wrens

House Wren

House wrens are a small bird, abundant in the Americas, with a divine melodious song and elegant markings. They have numerous loveable aspects, but what is endlessly amusing and curious are the many places they choose to nest.

 

Since they are unable to dig their own cavity, they take up residence in all sorts of places.

 

Last week, while visiting Wisconsin, we found a pair of house wrens nesting in the base of an old basketball hoop.

 

Athena found the nest while photographing other birds, many of whom had nesting activity in my cousin’s rural yard. The bluebirds were tirelessly feeding their chicks, the barn swallows were doing the same; both in conspicuous nest boxes and easy to see.

 

Contrastingly, the house wren was quietly perched near an old rusty basketball post. Only one blade of dried grass could be seen. But every few minutes this clever bird would vanish under the rusty dome.

 

House wren with nest

House wrens are known for their creative nests. Small birds less than five inches (13 cm) long, they squeeze their little bodies and build a nest in some of the oddest places–old boots, abandoned cars, traffic lights.

 

A contemporary of John James Audubon wrote he found the house wren in “…olive jars, boxes, and … the hollow of trees.”

 

Audubon, too, found the house wren entertaining and “extremely pleasing.” He dedicated a drawing in his famous book to the house wren. Plate 83 in Birds of America, published 1827-1838, depicts Troglodytes aedon nesting in an old hat.

House Wren drawing by John James Audubon. Plate 83. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Audubon’s house wren observations here.

 

This common songbird can be found throughout the Americas, from central Canada down to the southern tip of South America. See map below.

 

They have many predators (cats, rats, squirrels, owls, and more), but regardless of their vulnerability and diminutive size, house wrens are the most widely distributed bird in the Americas. They often brood two clutches (group of eggs) in a season, and lay from 3-10 eggs per clutch.  More info here. 

 

See the grass tucked up under the rusty dome?

A resourceful bird with a heavenly voice, the house wren has been building nests and breeding for centuries, lighting up the surprised faces of humans, and filling the air with sweet music.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kingfishers of the World

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

A bird widely distributed across the world today, the kingfisher inhabits almost every continent (map below). This successful and thriving species has fossils that date back 30-40 million years.

Forest Kingfisher, Australia

 

Contrary to their name, not all kingfishers catch and eat fish; some species prefer frogs, snakes, worms, and more. Wikipedia overview.

 

Green Kingfisher (female), Belize

 

Though sources differ, there are approximately 100 species of kingfishers. Largely tropical birds, the majority inhabit the Old World tropics and Australasia.

 

The species we see most in North America is the belted kingfisher,.   In Europe, the kingfisher most commonly seen is appropriately called: common kingfisher. There are 10 species in Australia, 18 in Africa.

 

Whenever I am walking around a lake or river and hear the characteristic ratcheting of the belted kingfisher, whatever I am doing, I look up and search for this avian friend.

 

Australia, Kakadu Nat’l. Park

Kingfishers have a disproportionately large head and long, pointy bill; with short legs and stubby tails. They range in size from 3.9 inches long (10 cm) (African dwarf kingfisher) to 18 inches (45 cm) (giant kingfisher).

 

Giant Kingfisher, Botswana

When you come across a kingfisher, they are often perched on a branch, scanning the ground or water below. One of the easier birds to spot, they have bright colors, a distinct shape, and a predictable behavior.

 

Kingfishers have excellent vision, including binocular and color; and are able to recognize water reflection and depth. Some species have eye membranes for water protection. The pied kingfisher, for example, has a bony plate that slides across the eye on water impact.

 

Pied Kingfisher, Botswana

 

Blue-winged Kookaburra with frog in mouth, Australia

 

Little Kingfisher, Australia

Once the kingfisher spots the prey, they swoop down and snatch it, return to the perch. Holding the prey in their strong bill, they beat it against the limb, breaking it down to a sizeable portion for consumption.

 

Sometimes kingfishers will hover above water and dive in for fish.

Green Kingfisher (male), Belize

 

A kingfisher discussion would not be complete without mentioning the laughing kookaburra. Although this kingfisher lives primarily in Australia, many of us all over the world have heard of it, from the song. “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree….”

 

Laughing Kookaburra, Australia

You can hear the great old children’s song, written by an Australian music teacher in 1934, here: the song

 

The real-life sound of a laughing kookaburra is truly wonderful. When I first heard it in a park in Sydney, it startled me.

 

Loud and cackling, it sounds nothing like laughter. You might think it was a monkey (or a wild beast) if you didn’t know better. Kookaburra call. 

Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Zambia

With a variety of specialized hunting skills, successful worldly range, and striking  colors, this bird is one that many of us have been celebrating our whole life.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Kingfisher range. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

Big Sur, California

Highway 1 vista, Big Sur California

Big Sur is a region of coastal central California. Originally named by the Spanish, it translates as “the big south,” and anyone exploring it experiences the vastness.

 

It is an endless pleasure to live relatively close to Big Sur. We take road trips every few years, visit favorite spots, and try new ones, too.

Highway 1, California

It is a popular tourist destination. The only road, Highway 1, winds through the mountains along the jagged Pacific Coast, taking Big Sur visitors past sparkling ocean vistas and miles of protected, undeveloped land.

 

Although opinions differ about what exactly is Big Sur, it is generally thought of as the  Highway 1 area between Monterey and San Simeon, an expanse of about 80-100 miles (129-161 km). There are forests and parks inland too.

 

The Big Sur coast is the “longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the [contiguous] United States.” (Wikipedia). More Big Sur info here.

 

For centuries this area remained undeveloped. The rugged Santa Lucia Mountains rendered the coast inaccessible, isolated.

Black-crowned Night-Heron foraging in kelp. Point Lobos, CA

But eventually the highway was built among the precarious, ever-moving mountains; completed in 1937. Convicts built it.

 

Some part of the highway is almost always closed, due to rock or mud slides. There is a section closed now, a result of recent storms. The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge collapsed. (See photos at the end.) If you are planning a trip, look up road closures here.

 

McWay Falls, Big Sur

 

Northern Elephant Seals, Piedras Blancas

 

Pebble Beach Golf Course, 6th hole. Photo: B. Gagnon. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Some of the frequently visited spots include coastal towns like Monterey and Carmel, and the Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

 

Golfers take to Pebble Beach, and families descend on Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Map of Big Sur

May of Hwy 1, Big Sur. Courtesy Wikipedia.

In between these human places lie pristine beaches loaded with elephant seals;  migrating whales cruise by, and the cool, coastal waters are abundant with marine mammals.

 

There are also many bird species including the critically endangered California Condor.

California Condor, Calif.

Wild iris

 

 

 

 

 

My favorite place to go is Point Lobos. It is a state nature reserve with trails, wildlife, an underwater marine sanctuary, and dynamic tide pools.

 

Point Lobos, California

Here’s a post I wrote about Point Lobos.

 

We often spend about two days exploring Point Lobos and then we’re back on the road again, heading south down the coast. I’ve enjoyed many boat rides on the Monterey Bay, too.

 

Harbor Seals

Each day is usually a long one, with many different adventures. The wind off the Pacific can be strong, and there’s often fog.

 

Cambria coast, California

Whatever we did that day, at the end of it, when I finally close my eyes and the sea sounds start to fade, I find I’m giddy about what the new day will bring.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

Rock slide on Hwy 1, 1994. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 has been closed and condemned due to damage from storms in Big Sur, Calif. on Wednesday, March, 8, 2017. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

 

The third and final span of the condemned Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge came down Wednesday. (Photo courtesy Caltrans)

Hwy. 1, Big Sur. March, 2017. Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge taken down after collapse. Photo The Mercury News. mercurynews.com

 

The Glory of Spring

Shooting Stars

One of my favorite places to be in spring is home, especially in April as the earth is waking up. Here is a sampling of what we have seen in the past two weekends of this springtime celebration.

 

Jackrabbit

Northern California had enormous precipitation this past winter; devastating for some communities, but plentiful for all. As a result, we have had abundant new growth.

 

While there have been many gorgeous flowering fruit trees and landscaped plants in town, I especially love the spring show in the forest mountains.  Wildflowers have begun their emergence, trees express their accelerated growth, and the wildlife have new goals.

 

Indian Warrior

 

Violet-green Swallow, male; newly arrived for the spring

The bird populations change, too.

 

Year-round birds start to sing differently, busy with the activity of attracting a mate and starting a family.

 

California Quail, a year-round bird

Migratory birds that wintered here are leaving for the season, headed north to nest in their homeland. Hermit Thrushes are gone now, and every day I hear a few less Kinglets.

Black-headed Grosbeak (male); a highly anticipated spring arrival

Other migratory birds that left us in fall, are gradually returning for the warm months. The Bluebirds and Violet-green Swallows have come back, vying for the nest boxes as usual; the Olive-Sided Flycatchers have not yet returned, and I haven’t heard the California Thrasher either…but they will come along when it gets a little warmer.

 

They all remind me that cold, dreary days really are going to recede.

 

And all I need to hear is the first “spic,” to know that the Black-headed Grosbeak has returned.

 

Pacific Chorus Frog

Then there’s the nightly symphonics of the Pacific Chorus Frog at the neighbor’s pond. This little frog, about the size of my thumb, in concert with thousands of others, creates such a cacophony in the dark!

 

Lately I’ve been hearing Great Horned Owls dueting at night. Click here for this owl’s call.

 

Wild Violet

During the drought, some wildflowers didn’t bloom, some oaks didn’t produce acorns. It is their way of conserving energy.

 

This year the wildflowers are abundant. But true to wildflowers, they come and go with each day, depending on the severity of the wind and rain.

 

We can have a big patch of Indian Warriors one day, and a few days later they have already started melting back into the earth.

 

Miner’s Lettuce

Some of the flowers are bright and bold, others are subtle, like Miner’s Lettuce.

 

And the poison oak–although it is beautiful in shiny new, red leaves, is already chest-high in some places, and as daunting as ever. This plant is virulent every year regardless of drought.

Poison Oak

Western Bluebird (male)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Western Fence Lizard

Every season I am reminded of the  heavenly glories of life on earth. But the hope and brightness of spring, well, it a supreme pleasure.

 

Have a happy weekend, my friends~~

 

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Easter Bunny

 

 

 

Birds of the Okavango Delta, Part 2 of 2

Lilac-breasted Roller, Africa

When you joined me in Botswana Africa’s Okavango Delta last week, I presented birds that frequent the water.  See Part 1 here. Today we’ll complete the series with birds that tend to occupy the grassland and woodland habitats of the Delta.

 

The lilac-breasted roller is a favorite for many people, because of their astounding beauty. So-named for their aerial acrobatic rolling, they are about the size of a crow.

 

They hunt for insects and lizards, and perch in open spots, then flutter out like a ballerina in the air, and spin and roll with dazzling beauty.

 

Another very colorful and acrobatic bird, bee-eaters can be found on numerous continents; in Africa there are 20 species, with seven in Botswana.

 

Little Bee-eaters, Botswana

 

As you might have deducted from their name, the bee-eaters hunt bees; and are often seen on a limb whacking a freshly-caught bee–they are eradicating the bee’s stinger before consumption.

 

And then there’s the comical oxpeckers.

 

Sable with Oxpeckers

Usually found on the body of a large mammal, they eat the pesky ticks, and sometimes ear wax and dandruff. Not a charming diet, but a bird that is a fun to observe. Just looking at this photo starts you wondering where they venture….

 

Post by Jet Eliot about oxpeckers.

 

Another resplendent beauty, the Greater Blue-eared Glossy starlings shimmer in the blazing African sun.

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Long-tailed Shrike

Other birds pictured here are the long-tailed shrike, a thrill to watch flying as his tail waves through the air like an unfurled flag; and the coppery-tailed coucal with their copper tail and scarlet eye.

Coppery-tailed Coucal

 

Common in Okavango Delta, hornbills are known for their massive casque bills. There are seven hornbill species in Botswana alone. A previous post on the hornbills.

 

Yellow-billed Hornbill

 

Then there’s the very cool hammerkop, whose name translates to hammerhead, in describing the bird’s unusual hammer head-shape.

Hammerkop, Africa

 

One bird has so many unusual features, you don’t know what to think of it: the secretary bird.

 

Secretary Bird

This elusive bird of prey has the body of a raptor and the legs of a crane, with funky quill-like feathers on the head. They use their half-pantaloon/half-bare legs to stomp prey. Funny-looking but ferocious, they also use their large, hooked bill to strike prey.

 

The secretary bird is one of my favorites, read more at Loving the Secretary Bird by Jet Eliot.

 

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

The largest owl in Africa, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl is a towering force in the woods, eating mammals, birds and insects.

 

But even this bird, also known as the Giant Eagle Owl, has a soft side: when you find them sleeping, you see their pretty pink eyelids.

 

Because it’s an African safari and birds are only part of the adventure, I’ve also included a few other creatures we observed in the Okavango Delta.

 

Thank you for joining me on this two-part series, celebrating the wide variety of birds in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

 

Zebra, Okavango Delta

 

Leopard, Okavango Delta, Botswana

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Kudu with Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on back

 

 

 

Birds of the Okavango Delta, Part 1 of 2

Saddle-billed Stork, Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta, in the southern African country of Botswana, is a most astounding place. A desert in the dry season, and an extensive wetland the other months, it is home to thousands and thousands of birds, mammals, and myriad wildlife.

 

This is the first of a two-part series highlighting birds we saw at this Unesco World Heritage Site.

 

African Jacana

Due to seasonal flooding, the Okavango Delta swells and shrinks dramatically in the course of a year.   In January and February, rainfall from Angola drains down the Okavango River and floods this flat plain for 4-6 months–an attractive opportunity for parched wildlife.

 

Wattled Cranes, Botswana, Africa

As part of the Kalahari Desert, the Delta’s water eventually recedes from the sandy terrain; and high temperatures cause the water to transpire and evaporate.

 

African Skimmer, Botswana

This annual cyclical pattern creates a permanent or temporary home for hundreds of thousands of African creatures.  Wikipedia Okavango Delta overview here.

 

A 7,000-square-mile area, there are over 500 different bird species here. For comparison, in all of Canada (3.8 million square miles) there are 400 bird species.   Bird list here.

 

African Fish Eagle, Botswana

Aquatic birds and raptors populate the waterways, swampy areas attract crakes and swamphen, while open waters attract waders. The variety of habitat, from reedy swamps to forests and grassland, is what makes this an attractive panoply for birds.

 

Egyptian Goose

Some birds are rare or threatened, like the Wattled Crane and African Skimmer; others, like the African Fish Eagle, are commonly seen.

 

Yellow-billed Storks, Okavango Delta

 

Hippopotamus, Okavango Delta

More than 200 species of mammals graze, drink, and live primarily nomadically, following the water or the growth it produces–buffalo, hippo, numerous antelope, zebra, wildebeest, to name a few.

 

Elephant herds number several hundred. And of course, predators (lion, hyena, cheetah and more) follow the herds.

 

Wild Dog, Botswana

The Okavango Delta is also home to the endangered Cape Wild Dog. We had the blissful pleasure of finding a pack of wild dogs at nearby Chobe River, read about it here.

 

Today I showed you some of the water birds in the Okavango Delta, including a few cameo appearances by non-birds. Next time we’ll take a look at more terrestrial-oriented birds. Stay tuned!

 

All photos by Athena Alexander

Painted Reed Frog, Botswana, Africa

 

Yellow-billed Stork, Okavango Delta

 

 

 

 

 

Location of  Botswana  (dark blue)– in Africa  (light blue & white)– in the African Union  (light blue)  –  [Legend]

Botswana in dark blue. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Caroni Swamp

Scarlet Ibis, Caroni Swamp, Trinidad

Located on 12,000 acres (4,860 ha) in northwestern Trinidad, this swamp is home to 190 species of birds, as well as reptiles, caiman, and many other marine life. The most famous inhabitant, however, is the scarlet ibis.

 

Caiman, Caroni Swamp

An important wetland for its ecological diversity and protection of endangered species, the Caroni Swamp was designated a Ramsar Site in 2005.

 

Red Mangrove Swamp, Caroni Swamp

Like many swamps, the Caroni Swamp has overcome a history of nearly getting filled in; and although the marshland is now protected, there are still problems with poaching, hunting, and pollution.

 

Caiman’s lucky day, returned to the swamp, Caroni

In anticipation of watching the nightly ritual of roosting scarlet ibis, we boarded an outboard motor boat close to dusk. Just before taking off, there was a commotion and our guide insisted we get back out of the boat.

 

We ran over to watch a park ranger releasing a female caiman. A resident had called it in, and the ranger had captured her and was about to release her into the swamp.

 

Roosting island for scarlet ibis, Caroni Swamp

After that excitement, we climbed back into the boat and cruised through the mangrove channels. Large swamp trees with extensive aerial root systems, mangroves live in salt water in tropical and sub-tropical regions all over the world.

 

As the sun began to set, our boat meandered through the channel, navigating around the roots. We saw tree boas coiled up in the overhead roots and branches, as well as wading birds and raptors.

 

Before our boat was in position, the ibis were already arriving. Overhead and all around us, there was a swirl of bright red ibis. During the day they feed in Venezuela, 11 miles away.

 

2016 Roter Ibis.JPG

Photo: J. Patrick Fischer, courtesy Wikipedia

Photo: Charles J. Sharp, courtesy Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

Scarlet ibis roosting, Caroni Swamp

Living in large colonies throughout South America and the Caribbean, the Eudocimus ruber is a wader, with a long, curved bill and flaming-red feathers. More info here. They are the national bird of Trinidad.

 

In spite of two other anchored boats filled with people watching the spectacle of the incoming ibis, we were all quiet.

 

There is something so profound, so sacred, about watching hundreds and hundreds of glowing red birds coming in for their evening rest.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

Scarlet ibis, Caroni Swamp