Cumberland Island

Cumberland Island Ferry Boat Dock, St. Marys, Georgia. Jet in blue shirt and hat.

Cumberland Island National Seashore is a small barrier island off the Atlantic Coast of Georgia. Taking the ferry and spending a day on the island offers a peaceful day trip and a pleasant hike.

 

Before we even boarded the ferry, wildlife were entertaining us. We noticed a group of fourth graders squealing at something under the dock, they had found about a dozen fiddler crabs in the low-tide mud.

 

Fiddler Crabs, St. Marys, Georgia

 

This roseate spoonbill was busy probing the mud, filtering crustaceans in its magnificent bill.

Roseate Spoonbill, St. Marys, Georgia

 

The ferry ride is about 45 minutes long and cruises past numerous islands and marshes.

 

The island is only 18 miles (29 km) long. The east side faces the ocean; while the west side faces saltwater marshes and rivers, the Cumberland Sound.

 

It has a long, peopleless beach where we watched several flocks of royal terns in their winter plumage.

Royal Tern pair, Cumberland Island

Georgia Coast overview

Ferry boat Info

Cumberland Island Wikipedia

Cumberland Sound from Cumberland Island

 

Cumberland Island is one of Georgia’s 14 major barrier islands–it is the largest. Fortunately for us, most of Georgia’s barrier islands are protected by state or federal governments.

 

Barrier islands are coastal landforms that have been formed by tides, waves, wind, sand and other elements. They protect the coastline by forming a barrier, thereby blocking ocean waves and wind from directly hitting the mainland. See graphic at end.

 

These islands, also known as the Golden Isles, are so named for the rich amber color of the marsh grasses.

 

While there are many popular tourist attractions on Georgia’s islands, what I like about Cumberland is that it’s refreshingly devoid of tourist facilities and commercialism. There are no stores or concessions here, no golf courses or gift shops, not even garbage cans. You eat and drink what you brought, and pack your garbage out.

 

The Park Service only allows 300 visitors a day. Most people come just for the day, but there is an inn (prohibitively expensive) and camping available.

 

The emphasis is on the wilderness and wildlife.

 

In addition to the barrier islands, Georgia’s coast is comprised of 400,000 acres (1,619 sq. km.) of saltwater marshes. Influenced continuously by the ocean’s tidal action, the marshes flood and drain constantly, bringing in microscopic organisms that enrich the water with oxygen.

 

Abundant fish, shellfish, plants, insects, and birds are attracted to these waters. Marsh grasses and the shallow waters provide cover for the wildlife.

Saltwater Marsh near Cumberland Island

 

There is also a maritime forest on Cumberland Island. It has live oak trees curiously stunted by salt air; they are thickly covered with Spanish moss. The area’s ubiquitous saw palmetto plants (in foreground) dominate the forest floor.

Maritime Forest, Cumberland Island

 

While in this unusual forest, we heard the crashing surf and soon found untouched dunes and the Atlantic.

Sand Dunes and Atlantic Ocean, Cumberland Island

 

Conservationists have been working for decades to protect this beach, successfully encouraging sea turtles to nest. Last year the National Park Service counted 885 sea turtle nests here. The majority of the nests belonged to the endangered loggerhead turtle.

 

This pristine beach has not always been protected. One of the most ferocious protectors of the loggerhead turtles is Carol Ruckdeschel, who has lived on Cumberland for decades. The book “Untamed” by Will Harlan outlines the many achievements Carol has made, often single-handedly, in protecting the turtles and other wildlife on Cumberland Island.

 

Horseshoe crab shells, one jellyfish, and several species of shorebirds dotted the beach. Coconuts, palm trunks and other washed-up detritus were covered with seaweed and barnacles.

Horseshoe crab shell, Cumberland Island

 

Winds were fierce, so we kept hiking.

Beach hikers, my sister and brother-in-law.

 

There are other attractions on the island, like the Dungeness Ruins, a fire-ravaged and abandoned estate with much human history, as well as feral horses.

Dungeness Ruins and feral horse

 

We did not have much time to linger on our mild winter day. The sun sets early in November, and there was only one departing afternoon ferry, it left at 4:45 pm. More ferries are offered in the summer.

 

After we boarded the ferry, the magic did not end. Those same fourth graders were on board, and when the squealing began, I went over to see what they had found this time. Dolphins.

 

Then one last parting gift: the setting sun.

 

As we cruised through the Golden Isles, we were surrounded by miles and miles of golden marsh grasses, lit up like only the sun can do.

Golden Isles, horizontal line through center of image is sunlit golden marsh grasses

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Coastal Landforms, Barrier Island on right. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

Winged Creatures of Trinidad

 

Purple Honeycreeper (male), Trinidad

Trinidad is not the most popular island in the Caribbean. Many people have never even heard of it. But for those of us who embrace the glory of the natural rainforest and all the creatures who live in it, it is a paradise.

 

Here are some of my favorite winged creatures, found while spending a week on this small island eight miles (12 km) off the Venezuela coast. Trinidad Wikipedia.

 

A visit to the Caroni Swamp yielded many thousands of scarlet ibis. They flock to this protected swamp at night to roost. We sat in a boat and waited for them as the sun set.

Scarlet Ibis, Caroni Swamp, Trinidad

Red mangroves

Caroni Swamp, Trinidad

 

In the rainforest, nectar-drinking birds like hummingbirds and honeycreepers were plentiful.

Asa Wright Nature Centre

Tufted Coquette hummingbird, male, Trinidad

 

Green Honeycreeper, male, Trinidad

 

We were fortunate to see the rare oilbirds. There are only a few places left in the world where these nocturnal birds can still be found. They use echolocation, or sound reverberation, for navigating — a system that bats use, but not usually birds.

 

We hiked to a specific protected cave, escorted by a guide, and because they are so skittish, we were allowed only a few minutes to peer into the darkness for them.

 

They squeal like pigs and are large, hawk-size birds.

Oilbirds, Dunston Cave, Trinidad

 

Bats were also abundant in the Trinidad rainforest. One day in the middle of the day when the sun was brightest, a white bat came fluttering down the trail, pretty close to our heads. Athena and I had gotten lost in the forest, I think we had surprised the bat…as much as a white bat in the daytime surprised us.  It’s whiteness lent the essence of a ghost.

 

But it was every evening when we saw bats in abundance. We stayed at the Asa Wright Nature Centre, where wildlife are protected and celebrated. We found a crevice under the lodge where 100+ long-tongued bats came flocking out every night.

Pallas’ long-tongued bat, Trinidad

 

Long-tongued bats, Asa Wright Centre, Trinidad

 

Typical of the tropics, many species of flycatchers, trogons, and tanagers greeted us daily.

Silver-beaked Tanager, Trinidad

 

The bearded bellbird was difficult to spot in the rainforest, despite the loud croaking sound it made all day long.

Bearded Bellbird, singing; Trinidad

 

Numerous species of hawks were present. This white hawk was hunting beside the trail.

White Hawk, Trinidad

 

The jacamar was a thrill to find, a small and colorful bird about the size of a hummingbird.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

 

There are over 400 species of birds on this one little island; and approximately 100 indigenous mammal species, with bats accounting for over half of the mammals.

 

I’m glad you could join me in this glimpse of their tropical world.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Scarlet ibis roosting, Caroni Swamp, Trinidad

Islands in the Caribbean Sea. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

Blue-colored Friends

Ulysses Butterflies on Lantana, Australia. Photo: A. Alexander

If any of my friends in the Northern Hemisphere are feeling a little blue about the waning of summer, here is a panoply of blue wildlife to uplift your spirits.

 

Blue-gray Tanager, Peru

 

Blue-footed Booby, Galapagos. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Though there are many birds with blue, there are also insects and reptiles, and even a monkey.

 

Bluet Damselfly, Nevada. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Butterfly, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Western fence lizards have a bright blue belly.

Western Fence Lizard, California. Photo: A. Alexander

 

This skink we see in California has a dazzling tail.

 

Skink, California

 

The blue monkey. Not as blue as some of its fellow blue-named creatures, but a beauty nonetheless.

Blue Monkey, Lake Manyara, Tanzania, Africa

 

Birds this blue sometimes blend into the greenery; but I have spotted them from far across an opposite ridge…gasping from behind my binoculars, such stunning beauty.

 

Blue Dacnis, Peru. Photo by B. Page

 

We found these blue-headed parrots at a river bank in the Amazon. They were busy extracting minerals from the clay soil.

 

Blue-headed Parrots, Peru. Photo: A. Alexander

 

The color blue is a bit complicated when it comes to nature. Peacock feathers, for example, are actually pigmented brown, but their microscopic structure, through light reflection, expresses blues and greens.

 

Indian Peacock, Texas. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Birdnote.org explains it well:

“Unlike many other bird colors, blue is not a pigment but a color produced by the structure of the feathers. Tiny air pockets and melanin pigment crystals in each feather scatter blue light and absorb the other wavelengths. The even finer structure of the feather gathers the bouncing blue wavelengths together and directs them outward.”

 

I think the blue feathers on this Glossy Starling take scattering and bouncing blue wavelengths to a new high.

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Africa

 

I’ve noticed some birds sporting blue always seem to be bright, like these two tanager species…

 

Blue-necked Tanager, Peru

 

Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

… whereas other blue-pigmented birds can sometimes look gray or black, depending on the light.

Little Blue Heron, Belize

 

Mountain Bluebird, Wyoming

 

Great Blue Heron, Ding Darling, Florida

 

These blue-footed boobies are performing a mating dance. The blue pigmentation in their feet comes from carotenoids in their fresh fish diet. The bluer the feet, the more healthy the bird.

 

Blue-footed Boobies, Galapagos Islands. Photo: A. Alexander

 

A few more of my blue favorites.

Belted Kingfisher, California

 

Green Honeycreeper, male, Trinidad (called a Green Honeycreeper, but more like turquoise)

 

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

 

Turquoise Jay, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Southern Cassowary, Queensland, Australia. Photo: A. Alexander

 

How wonderful to have all these blues in the world–so much pigmentation or light or wavelengths or whatever…to celebrate.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

 

Western Bluebird, California

 

Point Reyes

Point Reyes, Tomales Point, Pacific Ocean side

 

Tule elks (male), Point Reyes

 

Pt. Reyes from Tomales Point Trail. McClure’s Beach.

 

About a two-hour drive north of San Francisco is an expansive park called Point Reyes. Geologically it is a large cape that extends off the Pacific coast. Technically it is Point Reyes National Seashore…locals call it Point Reyes.

 

It is an entire peninsula with ocean coastline, beaches, and dunes; rolling hills; forests; dairy ranches; hiking trails and more. The land area is 70,000 acres (283 sq. km). It is my favorite of all places to hike in Northern California.

 

Point Reyes Wikipedia

 

Point Reyes is home to 490 bird species, 40 species of land animals, and a dozen species of marine mammals. Pods of California gray whale migrate through here. Two resident mammal species nearly went extinct: tule elk and elephant seals.

 

A breeding colony of elephant seals can be seen from December through March.

 

Elephant Seals on the beach, Point Reyes near Chimney Rock

 

The coast is rocky and often foggy, typical of Northern California, and this peninsula juts ten miles into the ocean…so far that it is notorious for hundreds of shipwrecks.  See map below.

 

Sir Francis Drake’s ship is said to have hit damaging rocks here in 1579. The crew hauled The Golden Hinde up to the beach for repairs.

 

Centuries later, but in the same general vicinity, we came upon this tiny cemetery in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Experienced life-savers succumbed to treacherous waves while helping passengers of shipwrecked boats.

 

Life-saver Cemetery, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Today the Coast Guard cruises overhead, maintaining public safety.

 

Coast Guard helicopter at Point Reyes

 

On the craggy mountain ridges overlooking the Pacific Ocean, tule elk herds graze on protected land.

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Hikers share the trails with elk herds. Sometimes when the fog is very thick you can hear their impressive bugling without actually seeing an animal. The first time this happened I was nervous, didn’t like not knowing where they were. But now when I’m there I hope for it, I like the mystery.

 

Point Reyes Tule Elk

 

At this time of year, late summer, the grass has turned brittle and brown. Wild amaryllis flowers, common name “naked ladies,” can be seen clumped in the grass. They have a heady fragrance–sweet, like bubble gum.

 

Wild Amaryllis, aka Naked Ladies

 

While hiking along the grassy trails to Abbotts Lagoon, we came upon California quail, brush rabbits, and many sparrows.

Abbotts Lagoon, Point Reyes

 

California Quail (male) in lupine

 

Last summer’s visit yielded a coyote.

 

Coyote, Point Reyes, California

 

Every spring we find nesting swallows.

 

Barn Swallow nestlings, Point Reyes

 

One summer a few years ago, Athena and I decided to go out after dark in search of a rare owl known to live here, the spotted owl.

 

We knew the trail well enough that we walked without light. Our reasoning for walking in the pitch black dark–which in retrospect doesn’t seem quite so wise–was that we would come upon the owl and hear it, without it being frightened by us. Once we located its hoot, we could use the light to see it.

 

But as we tripped along the trail, we heard the unmistakable breathing of a big mammal…very near. When we switched on the light, we came face-to-face with a really big buck.

 

We were all three very startled.

 

We backed off, gave him some room, and he continued to graze. We never did hear or see the owl.

 

I could fill a book with the outdoor adventures we have had in our 30 years exploring Point Reyes. You may know that feeling: when you realize you have spent most of your life in a place…and loved every minute.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Header photo, also Point Reyes: Tomales Bay. You would never guess that below Tomales Bay lies the San Andreas Fault.

 

Point Reyes, California. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

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

 

Spring Wildlife Rituals

Jackrabbit

Northern California is now about a month or two into spring. The hillsides are emerald, wildflowers abound. Almost every summer migrant bird species has arrived; and all the animals have begun their spring rituals.

Wild Douglas iris, California

Violet-green swallows, black-headed grosbeaks, and Pacific-slope flycatchers have arrived from Mexico and Central America. They will breed here, then leave in autumn, hopefully with a new brood.

 

Violet-green Swallow, male, California

 

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

 

Pacific-slope flycatcher adult singing of life

Additional bird species have also arrived, in their usual order, some earlier in spring, some later. Flycatchers, tanagers, warblers, gnatcatchers, and more.

 

The violet-green swallows, oak titmice, and western bluebirds always vie for the nest boxes. Our human spring ritual is to clean out the boxes; their avian spring ritual is to squabble over them. It makes no difference how many boxes we offer, the territory battles somehow have to occur.

 

They cling to their real estate amidst a swirl of swooping competitors, and eventually it all gets settled out.

Violet-green swallow on nest box, California

 

Western Bluebird on nest box, California

 

A few of the reptiles are starting to show their faces. They come out of hibernation on warm days: look around, absorb the sun, do their dances, then return to their burrows when the evening starts it’s chill.

 

This week I saw about five western fence lizards

Western Fence Lizard, California

and at least ten skinks.

Skink, California

 

Twice we found snake tracks in powdery dirt, but no snake. It looked like a wooden pencil was dragged through the dirt. The snakes will linger longer when the earth has warmed up more, rattle at us if we unknowingly get too close.

 

This is a rattlesnake in our front yard from a previous summer; they keep our rodent population under control. That’s a big one.

Western Rattlesnake, sub-species Northern Pacific; Calif. Rattle (white) at far right end of tail, 6-8 rattles.

 

Then there are the frogs, Pacific chorus frogs. For the last three months they have been in full symphonic mode at night, singing at the neighbor’s pond, each male singing loudly–the louder the better–to attract a mate.

 

They require water for laying eggs, so the mating rituals begin at the pond’s edge, with the male filling up his throat with air, then croaking and crooning.

 

Starting in late January, through February and March, I sat in the dark living room with the window open, listening appreciatively, for as long as I could stand the frigidity. The sound came in thick waves, swelling, and swelling more.

 

Now there’s warm air coming through the night window, and the cacophony has dwindled, signaling that most mating has occurred.

 

Meanwhile, the female lays 400-750 eggs. They are jelly-like beads, in clumps that stick to the reeds and twigs. The frogs have to lay so many because it is tasty caviar to most other wildlife.

 

Soon the tadpoles will sprout little legs and gradually their entire bodies will transform from water-swimming pollywogs to land-hopping frogs.

Tadpole on a leaf…

Tadpole with frog legs

then frog.

Pacific Chorus Frog, California

The adult frog is very small, about two inches long (5 cm). They keep our spiders and insects in check.

 

Warm days, growing longer. New life abounds in many different forms…reminding us that miracles are everywhere.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) and Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly, Angel Island, CA

 

Hummingbird Fest

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica, Central America

There are approximately 330 species of hummingbirds in the world, they’re found only in the Americas. One of the most remarkable birds on this planet, they are in the Trochilidae family.

 

Some hummingbirds migrate, some do not.

 

In northern California, my home, we have one resident species, the Anna’s Hummingbird, who stays all year long…even when there’s snow.

Anna’s Hummingbird, Northern California

 

Fortunately, we also have the divine pleasure of observing several of the migrating species passing through in spring and autumn. And in tropical countries, there are numerous species any time of the year.

 

They wear a kaleidoscope of colors, and some are especially dazzling. Many have prism-like cells in the top layer of feathers that, through pigmentation and refraction, give the effect of iridescence.

White-bellied Woodstar, Peru

 

Some also have punk hairdos and psychedelic markings, like this male tufted coquette.

Tufted Coquette, male, Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad

 

Not all hummingbirds have the word “hummingbird” in their name. I guess after trying to name 330 different species, they ran out of words. By reading the names of each hummingbird in the photos here, you’ll see what I mean.

 

The booted racket-tail, below, is named for his racket-shaped tail and furry (orange) boots.

Booted racket-tail, Peru

 

Sparkling Violetear, Peru

 

Their unique flight skills out-perform all other birds. They move forwards, backwards, sideways, straight up, and are exquisite at hovering too.

Green Violetear Hummingbird, Costa Rica

 

Also, they have incredible speed. North American hummingbirds average about 53 wingbeats per second in normal flight.

Long-billed Hermit, Belize

 

They can dive at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, and average about 20-45 miles per hour in normal flight. They are named for the humming sound created by their fast-beating wings.

Woodnymph in rainforest stream, Costa Rica

 

With special retinas, they can see as they zoom. A hummingbird’s tongue is also noteworthy.

 

If you have good eyesight, binoculars or camera lenses, sometimes you can actually see the tongue extended outside the bill. You may notice how long it is.

Anna’s hummingbird (male) — notice his tongue, California

 

Hummingbirds, and woodpeckers too, require long tongues to extract food. In the hummingbird’s case, they use their long, forked tongue to reach into tubular flowers for nectar.

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Belize

 

A recent discovery has revealed that both parts of the forked tongue hold tiny tubes. When the bird unfurls its tongue into the nectar vessel, the tubes open up, draw the nectar, and then lock shot, capturing the liquid for the hummingbird to ingest.

 

The hummingbird’s tongue is so long that it wraps around the inside of the skull.  They have a special bone, called the hyoid apparatus, that guides the tongue to reach over, behind, and under the eye.

Image result for tongue in skull hummingbird

Diagram courtesy of animalia-life.club

We once had a hummingbird nectar feeder that adhered by a suction cup to the window. By standing inside the building and looking out the window at the feeder, we could see the hummingbirds mere inches away. As the bird would drink sugar-water from the feeder, you could actually see the crown of the head pulsate where the tongue was operating.

 

There are more astonishing facts:  Wikipedia Hummingbird.

Male Snowcap Hummingbird, Costa Rica

 

They fly like a bullet, glitter like sequins, and dance in the flowers — an avian work of art.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Chestnut-breasted Coronet pair, Peru

Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (1899). Courtesy Wikipedia.