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

Boat Rides

San Francisco ferry docks, Embarcadero

This week we’re experiencing wildfires in my county and adjacent counties in Northern California. This time, the fire skipped over us.

 

Those in my community who have not been evacuated have watery eyes and sore throats from the intense smoke, and breathing is a struggle. The sun is coppery from the toxic pall, and ashes have been falling for days. Our brave firefighters keep going.

 

I’m locked in, mending broken bones and staying distanced in a pandemic; so let’s do that virtual thing and focus on boat rides and the freshness of clean, moving air and abundant water.

 

The San Francisco Bay offers many opportunities to climb aboard. One day two years ago we took a birding charter on a winter day.

 

It was during the bird migration, so we saw loads of birds and sea lions, too.

Gulls and Sailboat, San Francisco Bay, California

 

A raft of sea lions, San Francisco Bay

 

Sailboats and Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA

 

You can take a boat to Alcatraz.

Alcatraz Island

 

Or hop on a commuter ferry across the Bay. These days, masks and social distancing are required.

Ferry boat, The San Francisco. Athena on the top deck in 2018.

 

In 2018 and 2019 we enjoyed Fourth of July fireworks cruises on the San Francisco Bay. Hopefully next year that will be happening again.

San Francisco Bay, 07.04.18

 

While birding, we often take boats to small islands. This was a boat we took in the West Indies with the goal of seeing tropicbirds…which we found.

Boat guide and captain, headed for Little Tobago Island in the West Indies

 

Red-billed Tropicbird, Little Tobago Island, West Indies

 

River boating is also fun for birding. Some years ago, our guide Armando and his captain friend took us on this wooden outboard motorboat in Mexico.

Armando and the boatman, Mexico. Photo: Athena Alexandra.

 

I always put my hand in the water when I’m in a low-lying boat, I like to feel the temperature of the water. But not on our pontoon boat ride through the Okefenokee Swamp.

Alligator and Spanish Moss, Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia.

 

Last summer we signed up for a half-day trip on this paddle-wheeler riverboat. We were curious to know what being on the Columbia River was like. It was super windy and a blast in every way.

Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler, Oregon

 

Here’s a live-aboard I was on for a week, years ago, visiting the Galapagos Islands. The Diamante. We slept on the boat at night and hiked different islands during the day.

Galapagos Islands, our living quarters for a week. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

Fishing and small boats are a livelihood for many.

Zambia, Africa. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

Fishing boats, Lake Baringo, Kenya, Africa. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

The Sydney Harbor has a lively array of boats coming and going all day and night. We caught a ferry to the Taronga Zoo, and had an exhilarating time observing the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and local sail boats.

Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

Motorized canoes on an Amazon tributary–they move just fast enough to keep the mosquitoes from biting.

Athena and I are on this boat. Photo: Bill Page.

 

We’re lucky to have water and boats all over this planet, and someday soon our Bay Area fires will stop, the air will clear, and I’ll be back onboard another great vessel. Thanks for joining me, matey.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Most photos by Athena Alexander.

Jet. It’s always fun to go under the GG Bridge. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

The Water Tray

Wild bobcat at the water tray, photographed by the outdoor camera

At this time of year, when it is extremely dry where I live in Northern California, the water tray is a popular outdoor wildlife attraction.

 

By the time we get to August, when there hasn’t been rainfall since April, streams are dried up, rivers are trickling, and lakes have significantly diminished in volume.

 

By providing a refreshing drink during the most parched season, we are inviting an ongoing parade of wild creatures.

 

It is a great thrill to be on the daily route of our wild friends.  On a hot summer afternoon, this coyote is headed toward the water tray. He has that determined look like we hikers get when we can hardly wait for a break-time sip.

 

Coyote, No. California, headed for the water tray

 

Frequent wildlife guests are excellent incentive to keep the trays clean and filled. We have two trays, move them around occasionally to make sure they are fully utilized. We place them where we can use the garden hose to fill them, so that it’ a quick task.

 

The water also makes an attractive bathing station for the birds, including this golden-crowned sparrow one spring day last April.

 

Golden-crowned Sparrow, No. Calif., bathing in the water tray

 

The mammals can get a drink pretty easily. The short-legged ones, like this chipmunk, are acrobatic and creative in accessing their refreshment.

Chipmunk on rock, No. Calif.

In general, the smaller the animal, the more often they drink, because they have a higher ratio of surface area to volume, lose water faster.

 

The chipmunks race over a rock to the tray, taking a drink almost every hour. Squirrels do a similar thing, though they don’t race, they prance.

 

For the birds, we put a stick and/or big rock inside the tray, to aid them and prevent accidental drowning. Some birds perch on the edge of the tray, some stand on the rock.

 

The usual array of backyard birds visit the water all day long: finches, juncos, towhees, jays, doves, chickadees, titmice, and more. Even nuthatches drink from the water tray.

Red-breasted Nuthatch, No. California

 

When a bird drinks, they dip their bill into the water, collect the fluid in their mouth and then look skyward, using gravity to swallow. But a few avian exceptions, notably doves and pigeons, have a sucking ability that most birds do not have. They drink and swallow, like mammals, like us, without having to tilt their heads up.

 

Some bird species, like raptors, usually acquire their necessary moisture from the body of the prey they have killed.

 

One August day last year, however, I saw this Cooper’s hawk, below, drinking at our water tray. In all my decades on earth, I had never seen a raptor drink water from a natural or manmade source.

 

This individual was born on our property three years ago, and has lived here ever since. I think he is so homegrown that he knows the water tray is always readily available.

Cooper’s Hawk at the water tray (photographed through a window), No, California

 

Night visitors, usually mammals, come regularly to the water tray. In summer we set the critter cam up to photograph our property’s hotspot.

 

Bobcat visit about once or twice every week (see first photo). Jackrabbits live on the property and are here every day and every night.

Jackrabbit, Northern California, at the water tray

 

This jackrabbit is having a morning stretch.

Jackrabbit stretching at the water tray

 

Every year is different, which is what I like most about living with wildlife.

 

Wildlife populations have good years and bad; here their reproductive success is primarily dependent on weather (food) and wildfires.

 

For many years we heard and saw foxes almost nightly. These are gray foxes, the native residents, they prefer chaparral habitat like ours. Then for several years we never saw or heard evidence of any.

 

Fortunately this year we have fox coming several times a week.

Gray fox at the water tray, No. Calif.

 

Lately this skunk has been here every night. They’re not a problem, and they eat carrion.

 

Striped Skunk at the water tray, No. Calif.

 

We keep the trays filled in winter too, because wildlife always need water. But in winter, if we are lucky to have rain, the trays stay filled on their own from the precious water that falls from the sky.

 

No matter what the season, there is often some lively activity to watch at the water tray.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander and the Critter Cam.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit, No. California

 

The Macaw Lick

Boarding the boats, Manu Nat’l. Park, Madre de Dios River, Peru

Peru Village on Madre de Dios Tributary of Amazon. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

Our wildlife-seeking travel group had piled into motorized canoes and spent the next week on the Madre de Dios River, an Amazon tributary, exploring Manu National Park. The hike to the macaw lick was to be one of the highlights, and it was.

 

Found only in the New World, macaws are some of the biggest parrots on earth.

Scarlet Macaws, Manu Nat’l Park, Peru, South America.

Up to that point, we had been hearing them from our canoes, but they flew so high, they merely looked like ants way up there. The low, guttural squawk, however, made for easy identification.

Amazon river (near top) and jungle, aerial photo. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

In 1989 a research team began a macaw research project here. Big, bold and colorful, the birds had been diminishing for years, due to deforestation and illegal poaching for the pet trade.

 

The team chose an obscure section of riverbank for its natural mineral supplies that are important to the birds, and that’s where we were headed.

 

A macaw’s diet is primarily seeds, flowers, and fruits which have naturally-occurring toxins designed to protect the plant.  The minerals in the riverbank clay, at this site, have a neutralizing effect on the toxic alkaloids the macaws ingest.

 

The research team had built a blind across from the Blanquillo Clay Lick to study the macaws. They prepared palm trees to provide nesting habitat, studied nesting patterns, and over the years steadily increased the reproductive output.

 

The Macaw Society aka Tambopata Macaw Project 

 

To avoid disturbing the macaws, we left our campsite at dawn to arrive at the Macaw Lick ahead of the birds. We hiked the sloppy mud trail through a thick tangle of rainforest and moldy debris; walked through a small banana plantation, too. The Amazonian rainforest has lots of rain which means: mud, humidity, abundant wildlife, and a fast rate of decomposition.

Our bird group hiking to the Clay Lick. I’m in the center with blue backpack. Photo: Athena Alexander

This is the blind, below. You can see the clay riverbank in the back center (brown), stretching widely on each side of the blind, where the anticipated macaws were supposed to arrive if we were lucky.

The Blanquillo Macaw Lick blind, near Madre de Dios, Peru. Photo: Athena Alexander

We were told that once we were inside the blind, we would not be able to leave again until the birds had flown off. There was a toilet in there, and it had a door.

 

At first, for about an hour, there were no macaws. It was steamy and really hot inside this thatched hut, and biting mosquitoes were rampant. I kept myself distracted by studying whatever creatures came along. Those two empty chairs are where Athena and I sat.

Group inside the blind.

 

This beauty arrived, among many.

 

Julia Butterfly, Manu Nat’l Park, Peru

 

Then the thrill began. A few macaws flew in making a racquet, and landed in the palms. Cameras started clicking.

Red and Green Macaws on palm trees, Manu Nat’l. Park, Peru

Eventually more macaws gathered. They congregated in the palms, gregarious and animated.

 

Before long it was a cacophony of squawking and screeching, and a kaleidoscope of colorful macaws. They clung to vines and roots, and dug their strong bills into the clay soil.

Red and Green Macaws, Blanquillo Clay Lick, Manu Nat’l. Park, Peru

 

Red and Green Macaws

 

These blue-headed parrots also joined the party.

 

Blue-headed Parrots, Blanquillo Clay Lick. Photo: Bill Page

 

As the morning unfolded, the 100+ birds gradually began to move on, and eventually every bird had departed. They say the birds come every day, unless it’s raining.

 

A wonderful place in the river’s bend where birds can socialize and get their daily requirements, and humans can huddle on the sideline, bedazzled by this brilliant spectacle.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander and Bill Page, as noted.

Amazon Basin, Madre de Dios, Peru

 

Listening to Doves

Squatter Pigeon, Australia

Emerald Spotted Wood Dove, Zambia, Africa

Pied Imperial Pigeon, Australia

If you have ever listened to a dove, you know the sweet, gentle voice of peace. Seems like right now is a good time to relax into the peace of doves.

 

The bird that is classically associated with peace for centuries, doves and pigeons form  the family Columbidae. There are over 300 worldwide species. They live  everywhere except in extreme temperatures.

 

The terms “dove” and “pigeon” are often used interchangeably. Usually doves are smaller, and pigeons larger, but there are many scientific distinctions.

 

More information Columbidae

 

In North America, one of our most common doves is the mourning dove. It has several soft cooing vocalizations that add a mellow, repetitive coo-woo-woo to the air.

 

Mourning Dove, California

Mourning Dove Vocalization

They also have a soft, whistling wingbeat sound.

Mourning Dove Wingbeat Sound

So many times friends or co-workers have excitedly told me they heard an owl, only to find after we investigated further, that they were hearing a mourning dove. It is a muted sound, steady, with a slow, repeating call, and much like an owl.

 

Where I live in Northern California, we have a forest dove, the band-tailed pigeon. They do not have noticeable vocalizations, but the sanguine sight of their 25+ flocks synchronistically cruising over our valley is equally as calming.

Band-tailed Pigeon pair, California

Perched flock of band-tailed pigeons, California

 

The pigeons we see in cities, the domestic pigeon, are called rock doves. Sit on a bench in a city plaza and you can hear their cooing, like purring; the sun highlights their iridescent features.

Rock Dove visiting the San Francisco Hyatt

 

My favorite fruit dove, the Wompoo Fruit Dove, can be found hundreds of feet up in the Australian rainforest canopy eating figs and other fruit. I fell in love with its soothing wom-pooooo call.

 

Impossible to photograph, so high up, I give you an audio glimpse instead.

Woompoo Fruit Dove Vocalization

 

Another Australian rainforest dove.

Emerald Dove, Australia

 

Across the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii, the tender dove calls seamlessly blend into the fragrant air and tropical breezes.

Spotted Dove, Maui

Spotted Dove Vocalization

Zebra Dove Vocalization

We need more docile dove sounds in this world, and fortunately, they’re everywhere.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

White Rock Dove pair, Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, Oahu

 

Wildlife Visitors

Violet-green swallow, California

These photos reflect a few of the wildlife friends who have come to visit us in the past two weeks, as we continue to adhere to Covid-lockdown orders.

 

Numerous bird species that migrate here to breed join the year-round bird residents — all are breeding and nesting right now. It’s a very exciting time and every day the yard is filled with hundreds of avian friends.

California Quail, male, California’s state bird

We have lived here 19 years, on a rural two-acre property in Northern California, and have spent every day turning it into a wildlife parkland.

 

We were recently thrilled to see a pair of California quail finally return to breed on our property. Their populations perished in the 2017 wildlife fires; this spring they are back for the first time. As ground birds, they have to be very stealthy in their nesting; in a week, maybe two, we will see their chicks…if we are lucky.

 

Black-headed grosbeaks abound at our feeders. We heard the first chick this week. In another month or so, they will fly back to Mexico with their new broods.

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

 

A pair of house finches just successfully fledged three or four offspring this week.

House Finches (Calif.), male on L, female on R

 

It is only minutes after the birds have found their evening roost that we begin to see a bat or two coming in, swooping up insects. They are barely visible in the dusk landscape,  but I know where to look. They are busy all night long.

 

Our resident bats, the canyon bat, are small–smaller than an adult hand. This photo gives you a rare close-up view.

Canyon Bat, California

 

We see western fence lizards every day, which I love, and the snakes are out and about now too. We don’t see reptiles in the winter, too cold, but are always glad to see them in spring and summer.

 

This big gopher snake greeted us on a morning walk last month, on the road adjacent to our property. We watched quietly for a few minutes, until the tongue and raised head sensed us, and then s/he instantly vanished in the weeds.

Gopher Snake, California

 

Mammals recently recorded on our outdoor camera trap revealed a coyote, skunk, raccoon, bobcat, and gray fox.

Bobcat, California

 

The “critter cam” reveals how busy it gets here at night. The animals forage under the feeders for any leftover seeds, and always drink from the water trays now that the winter rains are over. All photos here have been taken on our property, but not by the critter cam.

 

Gray fox, California

 

During the day, mammals most seen are jackrabbits, gray squirrels, and chipmunks. Lately a newcomer has joined the fray, a brush rabbit.

Brush Rabbit, California

I am happy to report the brush rabbit is fitting in well. It must be roosting on the property somewhere, because it’s here daily now, grazing on the last bits of green grass that have not yet dried up.

 

I learned years ago that we have to make our own space. Thanks for joining me in our Peaceable Kingdom.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Anna’s Hummingbird, male, California

 

The Hummingbird Dive

Anna’s Hummingbird, male, California

Among the many extraordinary talents of the hummingbird, the male’s aerial dive is the most astounding of all. A courtship dance, the hummingbird dive is happening right now in the northern hemisphere.

 

It is an electrifying display, even to us mere humans.

 

This week in Northern California, I heard or saw it at least a dozen times every day. In colder areas, it probably hasn’t begun yet.

 

If there is a nectar feeder, it often starts while she’s feeding. Here he is (on the right) at our nectar feeder, impressing her with his iridescence.

 

Anna’s Hummingbird, female on the left, male on the right, California

 

Once he has her attention, he starts the dance. It usually lasts about 12 seconds.

 

Next, he flies straight up into the sky, and he keeps going higher and higher, until you barely see him.

 

He goes up about 100 feet (30 m).

 

Then he plummets, swoops down right in front of her, in a flash. They’ve been clocked at 50 miles per hour (80 kph).

 

In this photo, below, he is diving downward. You can see his bill pointed down.

 

Anna’s Hummingbird doing a “J” Dive, California

 

If you’re standing there, it looks like he’s going to collide with the ground. I have gasped plenty of times, afraid for the bird’s safety. But hummingbirds are known for their precision flying.

 

And then at the last moment, he flairs his tail, lifts up and sails skyward.

 

Also at this moment, his two outer tail feathers vibrate together making a distinct popping sound. The speed is so great, that the wind vibrates the two feathers together.

 

Often his iridescent gorget (throat) feathers light up, too. And he starts singing his heart out.

 

As if this wasn’t enough–this dive-bombing, glittering, tail-popping maneuver and serenading–he performs the dive again and again and again.

 

In the Anna’s Hummingbird species, this aerial dive is called a “J” dive, for the flight pattern that looks like the letter “J.”

 

Every hummingbird species has a slightly different dive style. The ruby-throated hummingbird, prevalent in the eastern half of the United States, does a “U” shaped dive; so does the broad-tailed hummingbird. See diagram at end.

 

We saw this dazzling male Costa’s Hummingbird in Palm Springs. Although we didn’t witness the courtship dive (it was February), I’ve read their dive is similar except they hurtle off to the side of the female and twist, to direct their sound.

 

Costa’s Hummingbird, male, California

 

The sound effects during this dive also vary among species. Recordings of six aerial dive sounds. 

 

Anna’s Hummingbird, male, California.

 

Sometimes in the heart of winter we will have a day or two of uncharacteristically warm weather. In this pseudo spring, the male will perform his impressive dive, thinking it’s breeding time. They are also known to use the dive for territorial purposes.

 

Anna’s Hummingbird “J” Dive, California

 

Many times I have watched the female fly away while he was performing the dive. Consequently, in mid-flight, he aborts the dive. It takes a lot of precious energy to do this dive, and he has decided to conserve.

 

There are YouTube videos on this, but they don’t really capture the speed, because they have to be done in slow motion to even see the bird. The dive is supersonic fast and nearly impossible to record. Here’s one of the better videos, in slow motion.
YouTube Anna’s Hummingbird Dive by Chris Clark.

 

During this season when hummingbirds are getting together to breed, keep your eyes and ears open for this spectacular performance. It happens fast, so you may have to watch it a few times.

 

Glory and beauty in the world of nature: you have to be ready.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Illustration of the flight pattern and courtship rituals of hummingbirds "Male dives toward female, reaching a top speed of ~40-50 mph" "Male emits tail-generated noise" "Male's gorget becomes visible to female, appears to change color" "Male reaches maximal horizontal speed [towards female]" "Male climbs back up, preparing for another dive in the opposite direction"

U-shaped Broad-tailed Hummingbird Courtship Dive Pattern. Courtesy princeton.edu

 

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.