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

 

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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.

 

Boats on the San Francisco Bay

Sailing past Alcatraz

Although it is relatively shallow, San Francisco Bay has always been an attractive draw to mariners of the past and present.

Sailboat and Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA

The deepest part of the Bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge,  goes down 372 feet (113 m). San Francisco Bay Wikipedia.

 

Commercial vessels here include container ships, oil tankers, ferries, pilot boats, tugs, and more. Frequent dredging maintains deep channels.

 

Fireboats operate here too.

Fireboat, SF

Privately owned sailboats and yachts are commonly seen.

 

Quieter inlets invite kayakers, windsurfers, and even paddle boarders to navigate the waves.

Paddle Boarders, Richardson Bay, San Francisco Bay

 

Many hardcore San Francisco Giants fans take the Giants Ferry to AT&T Stadium. And the baseball stadium has a special cove, McCovey Cove, where boaters wait for home run “splash hits.”

 

McCovey Cove, San Francisco

 

For people who can’t stomach the perpetual motion, permanently moored vessels are popular. Historic ships host sleep-overs for school groups or families; and many can be independently toured.

 

A few historic ships I have visited at San Francisco’s Hyde St. Pier in Maritime Park include The Eureka, an 1890 steam ferryboat, and The Hercules, a 1907 steam tug. My favorite is The Balclutha, an 1886 square -rigger.

Balclutha, San Francisco Bay

Retired military vessels are also anchored in this Bay, including the USS Hornet, a World War II aircraft carrier; and the USS Potomac, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential yacht.

 

If you’re tired of being on land and are looking for affordable ways to cruise the waters of San Francisco Bay, there are many fun options.

 

Frequent ferries visit the popular Alcatraz Island.

Alcatraz Island

One of my favorite day trips is a round-trip ferry ride to Angel Island, with a hike and a picnic.

Angel Island view, looking out at Alcatraz and SF skyline

 

I also like to go on birding boat charters. Seabirds and sea mammals are abundant in the Bay. A key migratory stop on the Pacific Flyway, San Francisco Bay provides important ecological habitats for hundreds of species.

Gulls and Sailboat, San Francisco Bay, California

 

An elaborate ferry system services commuters in numerous parts of the Bay. These ferries offer a short and sweet boat ride. goldengateferry.org

Ferry boat, The San Francisco, Athena commuting on the top deck

 

San Francisco Embarcadero. Ferry boats center right

 

In December marinas around the Bay are lit with decorated yachts. Parades of lighted boats thrill mariners and landlubbers alike.

Corinthian Yacht Club, Tiburon; Angel Island silhouetted in background

 

Sausalito Boat Parade

 

What is my favorite boat ride so far?

 

I’ve been on many. I love every single boat ride, whether it’s in dense fog and frigid temperatures, or on spectacularly sunny, scenic days. Satiated sea mammals and squawking birds, bracing wind, briny air.

Sea lion relaxing in ecstasy

But my favorite boat ride was last summer, a Fourth of July fireworks cruise.

San Francisco Bay

 

San Francisco Bay

It’s probably not too early to figure how to do that again. No, it’s never too early to plan the next boat adventure on the San Francisco Bay.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

BayareaUSGS.jpg

Bay Area USGS satellite image

(1) Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, (2) Golden Gate Bridge, (3) San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, (4) San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, (5) Dumbarton Bridge, (6) Carquinez Bridge, (7) Benicia-Martinez Bridge, (8) Antioch Bridge. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Yellow-billed Magpie

California Oak Woodland

I started birding in the 1990s, and there were always places we could reliably find the yellow-billed magpie. They like the oak trees in California’s Central Valley, and could easily be found in oak woodlands and pastures. As non-migratory birds, they don’t stray far from their communal roosting spots.

 

We have 673 bird species in California. Only two are endemic, i.e. unique to California. This bird is one of the two endemics. It occurs nowhere else in the world. (Island Scrubjay is the other). Range map below.

 

A large bird in the Corvidae  family, Pica nutalli make a splashy appearance with a tail longer than its body, and a bright yellow bill. Their black and white markings exhibit a flashing effect in flight. In addition, when they perch just right in the sunlight, the light changes their black wings to turquoise.

 

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

 

The black-billed magpies, their close relative, have this black-to-turquoise feature, too. We saw a flock in Montana a few years ago.

 

Black-billed Magpie, Montana

Black-billed Magpie, Montana

The magpies are raucous, much like their cousins the crows and jays–squawk a lot. They are easy to spot because of their big size, flashy colors, and vocal presence.  Click here to listen to one. 

 

But then in 2003 a mosquito-transmitted disease, the West Nile Virus, struck the North American corvid family and other bird species too. Humans and horses were also victims. (One percent of humans develop severe symptoms.)

 

Many birds suffered a precipitous decline, especially in the years 2004-2006. The yellow-billed magpie population fell by 49%.

Yellow-billed Magpie. Photo courtesy 10000birds.com

After a few years, some bird species made a comeback, built immunity. But others, including the yellow-billed magpie, continued to decline.

 

For years whenever we were in the Central Valley, we repeatedly returned to the same oaks with hopes of finding our old friends the yellow-billed magpies. But there were none.

 

You can imagine the plethora of scientific studies and surveys that were conducted for this unique, endemic bird. There were heightened efforts to understand and turn around the decline of this rapidly disappearing bird; they still continue today. Their conservation status is listed as Vulnerable, some say it should be Endangered.

 

Last month, while birding in the Central Valley, we did our usual cruising around the oaks looking for the yellow-billed magpies where we formerly saw them. We have been doing this every year,  to no avail, since the early 2000s.

 

And guess what?

 

Three flew into the oak tree just as we were driving by. They only stayed for about five minutes, but it was enough time to slam on the brakes, hop out of the car with all our gear, and go wildly running to the oak trees.

 

It was pure joy to see this rowdy bird again. They flew in as if nothing had ever happened.

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

A showy bird, found only in California, one that can change colors from black to turquoise merely by standing in the sun. Add to their remarkableness, their declining population is making a recovery.

 

That’s an incredible bird. Now let’s just hope they can continue recovery.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

 

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

 

Range Map for Yellow-billed Magpie

Range map for Yellow-billed Magpie. Courtesy allaboutbirds.com

 

The Delta’s Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

I had the pleasure of recently visiting what Northern Californians call “The Delta.” It’s been a winter with abundant rain, and we saw thousands of sandhill cranes.

 

The Delta is a low-lying valley at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Known for its fertile land, many agricultural crops are grown here; but in the winter, the fields are empty and only stubble remains.

 

Winter rain accumulations flood the open fields, and this is where cranes can be found. Simply slowing down and driving the back roads brought us endless delights.

 

Tundra Swans and Northern Shovelers

 

Antigone canadensis spend their winter living in this mild venue, from about November to February, then head north. In February, they return to northern North America and northeastern Siberia to breed.

 

Primarily herbivorous, sandhill cranes prefer shallow wetlands with vegetation; they can be seen congregating in the fields, probing their long, strong bills into the flooded waters as they search for seeds and sometimes insects, frogs, or other fare.

 

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

 

Wikipedia Sandhill Cranes

 

They are tall birds, ranging in height from 41 to 48 inches (104-122 cm). Wingspan is 73-84″ (185-213 cm).

 

In spite of the birds’ tall stature, their light, sand-colored bodies easily camouflage. They blend into the fields.

 

Sandhill Cranes; parent on right, juvenile on left

 

At first all we saw was a few  dozen cranes, here and there; easy to see with the levee water as a backdrop. Dazzling birds, so elegant and stately.

 

Sandhill cranes, California

As birders, we scan with our binoculars constantly. The sky, telephone lines, and in this setting, the fields. Scanning, always scanning.

 

That’s how we found a huge, nearly invisible flock. We had come to the end of a back road, entertained by many birds.

 

Black Phoebe

 

Then with a gasp, Athena spotted a quiet flock of 2,500 cranes.

 

Staying quiet and standing behind the car to avoid disturbing them, we soaked up the bliss of this crane abundance for nearly an hour, listened appreciatively to their trumpeting sounds. In that time, six other cars came and went without ever noticing the large flock.

 

The flock didn’t photograph well, so spread out, hazy light.

 

Black-necked Stilts

Our journey to the Delta was later in the crane season this year, and it was easy to see they would be returning to their breeding grounds soon. Mating dances had started up.

 

This male was demonstrating his prowess by picking up dirt clods, tossing them in the air, and then fluttering skillfully into suspended animation.

 

Sandhill Crane dance

 

How fortunate to find thousands of cranes, cavorting in the fields, safe in their winter home, fattening up before they make the long and arduous flight to their breeding grounds.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Sandhill Cranes, Lodi, Calif.

 

 

Belize Wildlife, Part 2 of 2

Brown Basalisk Lizard in Belize

In addition to the abundant bird species found in Belize, as featured last week, there is also an impressive array of reptiles, mammals, and insects. Welcome to Part 2 of the Belize Wildlife series.

 

 Part 1 of Belize Wildlife. 

 

Native to Belize, the brown basilisk lizard is known for its ability to “walk on water.” With large hind feet and web-like toes, they fly so quickly across the water’s surface that it produces the illusion of the lizard running on water.

 

A quiet river boat ride revealed this basilisk lizard basking beside the river. Like most lizards, the basilisks have varying colors.

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

The green iguana, which is not always green, was prevalent in many parts of the country. They are the largest lizard in Belize. We came upon this one on the outskirts of Belize City, he was about three feet long (.91 m) without the tail.

Green Iguana, Belize

Deeper into the jungle we were greeted by a troop of Gautemalan black howler monkeys. We had been birding in a Maya ruin, Lamanai, when we found the howlers lazily enjoying figs overhead. They were quiet in this scene, but other times we could hear their eerie, formidable howling from miles away.

 

Click to hear the black howler monkey.

 

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

 

Maya ruin, Lamanai, Mask Temple

An old abandoned sugar mill in this same Maya ruin had been taken over by aggressive vines, supporting numerous varieties of bats, bugs, and birds.

 

Bats, Lamanai

 

 

Montezuma Oropendola on nest, Belize

 

Leafcutter ants, my favorite kind of ant, were also in the rainforest. Columns of ants steadily marched down the trail, each ant carrying a piece of leaf they had chewed and cut.

 

The largest and most complex animal society on earth other than humans, leafcutter ants carry twenty times their body weight, as they dutifully deliver their leaf piece to the communal mound.

 

Leafcutter Ants

 

Where there are ants, there are antbirds.

Dusky Antbird, Belize

 

Life in the rainforest can be brutal. Assassin bugs are known for painful stabbing and lethal saliva.

Assassin bug

 

One dark night after dinner, we found this bad boy on our doorknob. Fortunately it was outside and not inside, and I was wearing a headlamp so I could see not to touch the knob.

 

Belize Scorpion

 

It is the abundance of bugs that attract birds–there were beautiful flycatchers here.

Vermillion Flycatcher, Belize

 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Belize

 

Heading east out of Belize’s rainforests, the traveler eventually finds the dazzling waters of the Caribbean Sea. There’s nothing more calming after jungle mosquitos than a cool sea breeze.

 

Ambergris Caye, Belize

The coast of Belize is comprised of a series of coral reefs, with 450 cayes and seven marine reserves.

Aerial view of Belizean coast

Sea mammals we found snorkeling were southern stingrays and green sea turtles.

Southern Stingray, Belize

Green Sea Turtle, Belize, Ambergris Caye

 

Snorkeling with Southern Stingrays, Belize Barrier Reef

 

While walking the white sand beaches, black spiny-tailed iguanas were a common sight. This frisky pair scuttled up and down a tree trunk.

 

With over 600 species of birds and a plethora of other wildlife, Belize is a tropical menagerie. Thank you for joining me on this two-part adventure.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Northern Jacana

 

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize