Roe the Crow

One of my new favorite pals of late is an American Crow. This is a brief story of how one crow figured out how to improve its life.

Gender identification for the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is difficult to distinguish, so I have given my new friend a gender-neutral moniker: Roe.

Here’s how it all started.

We have only lived at this house for two months. At first no crows came to our new backyard bird bath. I didn’t really think about it, because plenty of birds did.

And then one Saturday our neighbor kindly gave us a welcome-to-the-neighborhood party. At the party that day I watched a crow land in a neighbor’s bird bath. The crow was comfortable as it sipped the water, and clearly this was part of its routine. I thought: how lovely to host a crow daily.

I love crows and ravens. Members of the Corvidae family, they are one of the most intelligent bird species we have on this planet. They are bold, resourceful and highly intelligent; the species is abundant.

Wikipedia tells us that crows have the same brain-weight-to-body ratio as humans. American Crow Wikipedia.

Inspired by the party-day crow action, I began making sure our birdbath was always full of clean water. Within a week or two, a crow was visiting regularly. It’s probably the same one as the neighbor’s.

This crow, Roe, is easy to identify not by vision, since they all are practically identical, but by behavior. He or she does the exact same thing every time: lands on the edge of the bird bath, dips the pointy, black bill into the water several times, swallows. Then the bird turns its body around in one deliberate about-face, facing out, and flies off. S/he always flies off in the exact same flight pattern.

After that the crow was here frequently. Sometimes twice within five minutes.

Then this weekend a new behavior began.

It flew in, landed confidently and knowingly on the bird bath as before.

But this time when Roe arrived, there was something in its bill. Something big and white. With the crow being entirely black, a large chunk of white in the bill was very noticeable.

S/he dropped the white morsel into the water; let it soak in the water for a few seconds; then fished it back out of the water–by now softer and more pliable–and ate the whole thing.

Roe did this several times that day and again the next.

At first I thought it was bread or a cracker.

Athena and I quickly got out all our optics to investigate further, but we still can’t really tell what it is. A piece of paper? A flower petal? Dogwood? Daisy? Cracker?

Except for occasional lakes and reservoirs, we don’t have standing water in Northern California by mid-May…the rainy season is over until winter. So Roe has found this reliable water source and figured out a way to use the water to soften its meal.

One time the crow soaked it and softened it and then carried off the morsel; but all the other times–about a dozen so far–s/he eats it right there, then flies off. This repeated behavior tells me it is food, not nesting material.

I realize this fascinating behavior may not last. Crows are gregarious and form big flocks and who knows, there may be a day when I’ve got too many crows at the bird bath.

But for now, what a joy to be entertained by an intelligent, resourceful avian being.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Amer. Crow by John J. Audubon, circa 1861

Vultures are Cool

We were driving on a California country road this week surrounded by sweetly fragrant ceanothus wildflowers, when we came upon two lethargic turkey vultures standing in the road. Turns out they were doing us a big favor.

Because they were not moving for us, we slowly drove toward them and eventually they lifted slightly and got out of the road. But in the next moment a strong, putrid whiff of dead animal reached us. There was no carcass to be seen on this overgrown roadside, but somewhere nearby there was a dead and rotting animal.

Fortunately the vultures were on the job. They are a gregarious species, so eventually this dead animal will be completely consumed. The birds were lethargic because they were full.

There are 23 extant species of vultures in the world: 16 in the Old World (Africa, Asia, Europe) and 7 in the New World (the Americas).

Here in the U.S. we have three vulture species, all are pictured in this post: turkey vulture, black vulture, and California Condor.

More info: Vulture Wikipedia

The turkey vulture is the most widespread vulture species in the New World. Cathartes aura is a year-round bird in the warmer U.S. states and South America. We have them year-round in California.

Just about every time I am outside, nearly every day, I see at least one turkey vulture soaring overhead.

This is their classic look in flight, below.

Another common vulture sight is this one, below. It is called a horaltic stance, and serves multiple functions: drying the wings, warming the body, and baking off bacteria.

This is a turkey vulture nestling, below. The nest was in a small rock cave.

Turkey vultures do not have a vocal organ, so you don’t usually hear anything from them. But that day we found this baby turkey vulture, it elicited a shockingly evil hissing sound that I still hear in my mind when I look at the above photo.

Vultures are important for cleaning up the carrion that naturally exists on our planet. A vulture’s featherless head and hooked bill, seen below, are their carrion-eating tools.

They are also equipped with exceptionally corrosive stomach acid, allowing them to digest putrid carcasses infected with toxins and bacteria.

When not soaring, they fly closer to the ground, using their keen olfactory sense to detect the smell of gas (ethyl mercaptan) produced by a dead, decaying animal.

We spotted this vulture species (below), California Condor aka Gymnogyps californianus, on the California coast near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur. Ten years ago. We had visited a popular condor release site without success three years earlier, and finally had success in Big Sur, another release site, with this one. We actually saw two at the time, for about five really thrilling minutes.

They have the largest wingspan of any North American bird, measuring approximately10 feet (3.05 m).

There is an interesting story about this individual, #90, I’ll tell you another time.

California Condors are listed on the conservation status as critically endangered, and many vulture species have suffered a rapid decline due to loss of habitat, intentional and unintentional poisoning, and electrocution.

India and other countries have discovered that without vultures to pick animal corpses clean, there have been increased feral dog populations leading to increased dog bites and increased rabies transmission. But the problem is, protection comes too late. Vultures do not reproduce quickly. (In the U.S., vultures are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.)

While in Africa on numerous safaris, I have had the pleasure of watching many African vultures. It is not the loveliest sight, seeing a vulture dig around in the intestines of a carcass, but it is interesting to see the hierarchy of animals and the bonanza that unfolds when one wild animal has killed another. Equally fascinating is observing how the parade of scavengers completely devours the carcass.

One day we had the rare honor of seeing a pack of wild dogs in Botswana. Before we arrived, they had killed an impala and dined extravagantly. Then they ran off in a frolic of energetic euphoria and the vultures came in.

A closer look reveals their bloody faces.

Here are the white-backed vultures, Gyps africanus, that attended the carcass after the wild dogs were done. You can see the head of the vulture on the left is deeply inside the carcass.

These vultures have a wingspan of 6-7 feet (1.96-2.25m), and are now, unfortunately, critically endangered.

Another time we came upon this baby elephant carcass. Vultures and storks were feeding. You can see the skull on the far right…it has been picked clean.

These banded mongooses were watching the frenzy.

Fantastic creatures with unique features, vultures help keep this earth safe and clean. Next time you smell sweetness in the air, remember it could be more than flowers at work.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

New Backyard Friends

I moved recently, have a new backyard, and I’m happy to share a few of my new backyard friends.

I’ll start with the most thrilling: the Allen’s Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin).

My new residence is only a 25-minute drive down the mountain from where I previously lived, so you would think the birds would be the same. But there are some differences.

In our new location, we have breeding Allen’s hummingbirds; they were only rare visitors to our mountain domain, presumably because of the altitude. The breeding range of Allen’s hummingbirds is very small in the U.S., it is a thin ribbon on the California-Oregon coast. Range map link.

They are still the same little intense package that all hummingbirds are, but now we have the pleasure of witnessing the Allen’s breeding dance.

A tiny orange and green bird, the male during his breeding dance has a loud sizzling buzz. Additionally, there are shimmery flashes of coppery gold, swooping dives, and an elaborate rhythmic display of pendulous arcs. It’s a grand show.

And that’s only the beginning. The new house is situated between a forest and an oak woodland, we are surrounded by many bird species. Occasional ducks and waders fly overhead, Canada geese roost nearby, raptors, woodpeckers and lots of songbirds join us.

Acorn woodpeckers abound. One of my favorite woodpeckers, Melanerpes formicivorus are very entertaining to watch with their bold colors, bright markings, flashing flight, and vocal presence.

Last week I spotted a large dead oak tree in a neighbor’s yard. The tree, known as a granary, hosts dozens of acorn woodpeckers…it is wonderful. Here they excavate holes to store their acorns. This highly social bird congregates there, but when they want a refreshing sip of water, they gather at our bird bath.

We acquired that bird bath from the previous owner. The stem of it is textured like a tree, and at least one woodpecker thought it WAS a tree, hopping up the stem in a circling pattern.

Wild turkeys roam the neighborhood, too, they roost in the adjacent forest. Their loud gobbling throughout the day always brings a smile to my face. Some nights around sunset they meander through the grass behind our fence.

And on several occasions, we have had the supreme pleasure of watching the toms (males) display for the females.

One night four black-tailed deer came by. They are a subspecies of the mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus. This is a young buck, evident by the start of antlers.

I’ve been told by my new neighbors that in June a shepherd and his flock will come to our back woodland. The shepherd leaves the sheep here in a fenced enclosure and the wooly ruminants eat all the tall grass. It will be very interesting to see how all this plays out.

One day I watched a red-shouldered hawk swoop into our yard, snatch up a lizard, and then land in a big oak limb while he ate the lizard.

I love lizards. The excitement of the predator on prey was fun, but I especially enjoy watching the lizards bask on the rocks and skitter across our dirt.

There are also several California ground squirrels. Otospermophilus beecheyi. Apparently they have created an extensive tunnel system beneath our garden. This cheeky but cute one, below, is eating a red rose bud.

Then this past weekend we watched a yellow daisy abruptly shake like we were in an earthquake, and then it suddenly disappeared, vanishing below the soil. That cheeky ground squirrel was down there sucking up the flower as if it was spaghetti.

Other ground-dwelling friends include the white-crowned and gold-crowned sparrows, two towhee species (California and Spotted), and several pairs of California quail (Callipepla californica).

I was surprised and delighted to see one of my favorite butterflies, the pipevine swallowtail. In the last three decades, I have seen this butterfly species about five times. So imagine my delight in seeing them come to the backyard all day long.

Battus philenor have iridescent blue hindwings and their ventral (under) side has bright orange spots.

My friends the Corvids surround us too–crows, ravens, and scrub jays–and I’m especially interested right now in what I am sure is a baby crow on a nest in one of the nearby oak trees. I hear a crow nestling whine strongly, see a parent crow fly overhead, then hear the whining stop.

I spent the past 21 years on a mountaintop, my former home, and most days were highlighted with a sweet wildlife encounter. So it is with true awe and relief that I can say: the enchantment continues.

And not only do I have the adventure of new backyard friends, but I now have the added pleasure of your visit, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Aussie Backroad Thrill

This was a backroad adventure that topped all, one afternoon in Queensland Australia.

Photographers, wildlife observers and adventurers, we seek out the backroads, carving time out of our schedules to slow down, look around, and embrace whatever comes our way.

We had been in the area of North Queensland for two weeks and had managed to keep our rental car on the “wrong” side of the road with success. Three days in the field with an expert bird guide had acquainted us with billabongs and kangaroos and all kinds of Aussie oddities.

After our time with the guide ended, Athena and I hit the backroads all on our own. We were in the Wet Tropics of Queensland, a unique and rugged tropical rainforest, about 30 miles inland from coastal Cairns.

Tropical rainforests are generally rainy and dark and dank, and this was no exception.

It was humid and we had the car windows open, driving slowly and listening to the birds that dominated the surrounding forest. Narrow lanes branched off the road in this dense thicket leading to occasional modest houses barely visible through the vines and trees.

Spotted Catbirds called incessantly–a green-backed bird who sounds like a city alley cat that’s just had its tail stepped on.

Here’s what they sound like: Spotted catbird sound.

Doves monotonously cooed, while cockatoos and parrots squawked and ate flowers, perched on vines.

All around us the forest canopy dripped with moisture and shrieked with cackles and cries.

By now we were familiar with the brush turkeys who roamed the trails, and whipbirds with piercing calls that sound like cracking whips.

Eucalyptus and giant strangler fig trees were by now familiar, too.

We were adept at spotting many strange creatures, but what we found that day on the Kuranda Forest backroad was beyond our wildest dreams.

Fortunately we were inside the car when it happened…

when the human-sized bird, the Southern Cassowary, silently emerged from the forest.

A heavy flightless bird with a long colorful neck and ostrich-like body was walking down the road toward us.

This was an adult male and it didn’t take long to see he had three chicks in tow.

Casuarius casuarius are extremely rare to find in Australia. Endangered.

We had already had a thrilling but terrifying experience with a cassowary deep in a different rainforest, days earlier. They are one of our planet’s fiercest birds. They have lethal claws on their feet and can quickly, if threatened, kick a human to death.

But this time we were in a safer position, in the car.

We knew not to stir; not to get out of the car or make any sudden movements, as it would scare off the cassowaries.

He knew we were there, but quickly assessed we were no threat.

He walked down the muddy road slowly, leading his three progeny, stopping occasionally to search for food.

Although they were chicks, they were not small. One day, if they are lucky to survive, they will grow up to be as tall as a human. But for now they were new to this planet, and still about knee-high.

We quietly whispered our triumphal exclamations and barely moved, eager to keep the cassowaries in our presence for as long as possible. The whole encounter lasted about ten blissful minutes.

We were lucky no other car, dog, or human came along to scare them away.

It was just a quiet time alone with a family of four cassowaries.

Eventually they slowly sauntered back into the forest, vanished into the mass of trees and vines.

Wherever and whenever I can, I take the backroads. You never know what you might find.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Casuarius distribution map.png
Range map. Southern Cassowary range in orange

Sacramento Natl. Wildlife Refuge 2022

Our day last week at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge was another bonanza of wildlife, a particularly exciting adventure in the middle of winter.

The enormous number of birds is what keeps things so interesting. It is a 10,819-acre (43.78 sq. km.) wetland expanse; a wintering home to hundreds of thousands of migrating geese, ducks and other waterfowl.

The Northern California migration typically lasts from November through January, depending on the weather.

The most predominate goose species every year is the Snow Goose. They come from Wrangell Island in Siberia (U.S.S.R.) and spend the winter here in our milder climate.

This year there were also several hundred Ross’s geese.

And thousands of White-fronted Geese.

What we saw were waves and waves of white geese flying in all different directions.

What we heard was the most magnificent cacophony of honking and squawking.

This is a good representational recording: Click here for Snow Geese flock cacophony.

There are also many duck species who winter in the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.

Last week the major duck species was the Northern Shovelers. Last month, according to the Survey Summary, there were a lot of pintail ducks. It varies depending on the month and weather.

Northern Shovelers (Spatula clypeata) have similar coloring to mallards, but their namesake shovel-shaped bills easily distinguish them. They can often be seen swinging their spatulate bills from side to side in the water as they strain aquatic vegetation, plankton, and tiny invertebrates.

We often saw the Shovelers like this…

…but just as often like this.

The geese and ducks are only part of the refuge extravaganza, for there are also songbirds, shorebirds, waders, gulls, grebes, woodpeckers, raptors and other birds.

Here a white-faced ibis joined the northern shovelers. Tall bird in center with the long bill.

We spotted this adult and immature pair of bald eagles early on our auto tour (photo below). From this distance it looks like two dots in the tallest tree.

We knew we would get a better look at them as we progressed down the road.

At times we heard them calling out–a screeching sound.

And eventually we came closer.

The adult was easier to spot due to the characteristic white head.

It takes 4-5 years for a bald eagle to reach maturity, acquire the white head and tail. Prior to that there are many stages of maturation.

The immature bald eagle (below) still had a gray bill and a dark head, so is probably around 2-3 years old.

The young eagle’s flying was accomplished, and we enjoyed watching him/her swoop over the ducks, practicing bravado. The ducks scattered in a flutter of wingbeats when the young eagle came near.

We spotted western meadowlarks numerous times that day. They brighten up the brown landscape with their vivacious yellow markings, and even more bright is their song. A magical fluty series of notes.

We have always seen an interesting array of mammals here too. This year we saw nearly a dozen black-tailed jackrabbits, a striped skunk and a ground squirrel.

Two years ago we came upon a trio of river otters in one of the water-filled ditches. They were having a grand time catching fish, and the feeding frenzy lasted at least a half-hour.

Reptiles also joined last week’s fracas. First there were two western pond turtles on a log. Soon a third and then a fourth climbed onto the same log.

Throughout the whole turtle encounter, I noticed there was one who kept opening its mouth wide. You can see it in this photo, third from the left.

Come to think of it, it seems like all these wildly beautiful creatures seemed to have their mouths open that day. The geese were honking, mallards laughing uproariously, the bald eagles were screeching and the meadowlarks were warbling.

Made me want to sing too.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Snipe

I had the fortune of seeing a family of snipe this week. This is a bird that few people notice or know of, and some people think is imaginary.

Wilson’s Snipe, Gallinago delicata, is in the shorebird family: Scolopacidae. It is the most common snipe in North America.

They are short, pudgy birds about the size of an American Robin; usually found in marshes, with sandy coloring and markings that perfectly camouflage them.

This is the family of four we spotted while birding at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge this week.

With the tall grass and their camouflage, you can see how tricky they are to spot. They are standing (above photo) in the tall grass that spans the photo’s upper center. In the foreground on a log is a pair of resting green-winged teals.

We were on our annual visit to see the waterfowl winter migration. A spectacle that always delights.

While there, we spotted the snipes. In addition to their camouflaging, they have elusive behavior.

In over 30 years of birding, I have seen the snipe only about a half-dozen times. Spotting four at once was an unprecedented bonanza.

We were on the Refuge’s auto tour at one of the few places where we were allowed to get out of our car. We were having lunch: enjoying a bite, then scanning with the binoculars, listening to the cacophony of migrating geese and ducks, taking another bite, then looking through the spotting scope. To birders like Athena and me, this is heaven.

In our initial 360-degree binocular scan of the area, we spotted the snipes and enjoyed close to an hour there.

They never changed positions in that hour, except an occasional head lift.

This is the scene without extra lenses.

They use their long bill to probe into the mud for food. Their diet consists of insect larvae and insects like dragonflies, beetles and moths; and invertebrates like snails and worms.

Two special features of that marvelous bill: it is flexible and thereby good for probing; and the snipe can swallow small prey without pulling their bill from the mud.

John James Audubon wrote an extensive observation about the snipe–it’s behavior, migration, flight, breeding, and more.

Link: Audubon’s Birds of America, American Snipe

They do not breed in Northern California, and I have never seen the mating displays. But I have read they have a spectacular flight dance.

Here is Audubon’s description of the flight dance of a snipe pair:

It often happens that before these birds depart in spring, many are already mated. The birds are then met with in meadows or on low grounds, and, by being on the spot before sunrise, you may see both mount high in the air in a spiral manner, now with continuous beats of the wings, now in short sailings, until more than a hundred yards high, when they whirl round each other with extreme velocity, and dance as it were to their own music; for at this juncture, and during the space of five or six minutes, you hear rolling notes mingling together, each more or less distinct….”

Audubon’s snipe drawing, Plate 243, is below. It was completed in 1835. This is an online partial drawing.

“American Snipe” by John J. Audubon, Plate 243. Courtesy audubon.org

In Audubon’s time (1785-1851), the bird was called the American Snipe. At that time, Alexander Wilson, a Scottish-American ornithologist and illustrator, was the first to prove the snipe here in America was different than the Common Snipe of Europe. So it was dubbed the American Snipe.

Over the years it would be named the Common Snipe, and then more recently it was further classified into two bird species, the most common American Snipe being named Wilson’s Snipe.

Why is it an imaginary bird to some people?

Because there is an age-old trick dating back to the mid-1800s called the Snipe hunt. As a rite-of-passage trick, elders tell a young person how to hunt for snipe (or some other non-existing creature), and then leave them alone in the woods with an empty bag and instructions for catching it. It’s a fool’s errand that tricks young ones into goofy behavior alone in the woods while everyone else runs away. Many youngsters, after the gig is up, think there is no such thing as a snipe.

As we sat eating lunch, basking in the sunshine and the thrill of being near four snipes, a few people walked by. We invited them to take a look in the scope at the snipe.

Their enthusiastic reactions and comments indicated they knew of the snipe but had rarely seen one. All were in awe.

This is a photo taken through the spotting scope.

We spotted nearly 40 different bird species that day, and thousands and thousands of migrating waterfowl visiting Northern California from as far north as Russia’s East Siberian Sea and North America’s Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. An incredible migration that I will tell you more about soon.

Fortunately for us, snipes are not imaginary. They are old and ancient friends of Homo sapiens. The name may change occasionally, but the bird has been occupying marsh shorelines for well over 187 years.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Range Map for Wilson's Snipe
Range map Gallinago delicata. Ora=Breeding; Yel=Migration; Pur=Year-round; Blue=Nonbreeding. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org.

Waters in the Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta is an inland delta in southern Africa, with waters formed by seasonal flooding. When the water is here, wildlife abound.

More info: Okavango Delta Wikipedia.

The Delta is flat and vast, covering 5,800 square miles (15,000 sq. km.); on the edge of the Kalahari Desert.

We visited this UNESCO World Heritage Site years back in August, when the Okavango River floods the Delta and wildlife congregate.

Large African antelope called waterbuck are often found around water because they cannot tolerate dehydration.

Little Bee-eaters perch as they wait for bees. If you watch bee-eaters long enough, you have the pleasure of watching one sally out in a flash, grab a bee, whack it against a tree, and come back to the perch to consume it.

Hippopotamuses are semiaquatic mammals; they spend their days in lakes and rivers, staying cool in water or mud. At night they graze on grasses.

This is a rufous-bellied heron we watched wrestling with a carp. He swallowed it whole.

Other bird species we commonly found foraging in the Okavango Delta waters were jacana and the fish eagle.

Jacanas have feet designed to evenly distribute the weight of the bird so they can walk atop lily pads. But in many parts of the Delta their long legs take them through shallower waters.

The African Fish Eagle, a raptor, was fierce and vigilant and commonly found in many watery parts.

Other raptors were the African Barred Owl and Black-shouldered Kite. They, too, found their perches and stealthily waited.

Wattled cranes, the largest cranes in Africa and globally threatened, forage on aquatic tubers and rhizomes of submerged sedges and water lilies. It was thrilling to find this trio, for this crane species is rare to find.

The hamerkop is one of my favorite birds, named for the hammer shape of its head. We didn’t see them too often but when we did, we watched intently.

Blacksmith Plovers in their bold patterning were often seen in the waterways.

We passed this hippo pond at sunset and watched their antics until the day’s light had receded.

There are over 5,000 species of wild mammals and over 10,000 species of birds on this planet. I am glad I could share a few of them from the Okavango Delta with you.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Wild Jekyll Island

It was a fun day romping on this barrier island–hiking through native forests, observing wildlife, and delighting in shoreline discoveries.

The State of Georgia has 14 barrier islands lining the Atlantic coast. They are owned and managed by different entities; vary in size and accessibility. A map at the end outlines all the islands.

Barrier islands are coastal landforms shaped 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.

Salt marshes and maritime forests are important natural features of the barrier islands.

Like all the Georgia barrier islands, Jekyll Island has a rich history of human settlement going back hundreds of years.

But the beauty of Jekyll Island today lies in its ownership and laws. The State of Georgia owns this island, and state laws restrict development to only 35%.

This allows 65% of the island for natural habitat. Stewards of the land have done a great job of protecting the wilderness from human development.

Roughly seven miles long (11 km) and two miles wide (3 km), it is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the eastern side, and a tidal creek and salt marsh on the western side. It is 5,700 acres (2,307 ha). Map below.

I was impressed with the sand dunes and native sea grass on Jekyll’s oceanside beaches. Often American beaches have been completely cleared of native habitat, succumbing to human establishments like high rises and amusement parks. There are about nine hotels and a few restaurants, but the natural landscape prevails.

The beaches have been preserved with native flora, providing habitat and protected nesting for endangered sea turtles and migrating shorebirds.

We spent a few hours at Driftwood Beach on the north end. It is adjacent to a protected marsh where we saw many thriving waders, songbirds and shorebirds.

The island has many miles of maritime forests, as well. Maritime live oak forests are the dominant woods in Georgia’s southern barrier islands. In addition to the live oaks, so beautifully draped with Spanish moss, there is a variety of hardwood and pine trees.

The understory is alive with unique lichen, ferns, wild blueberries, and the ubiquitous saw palmettos.

We explored Tupelo Trail and Horton Pond. Even in October it was very hot and humid, but still it was an easy hike under a towering canopy complete with mosquitoes, shimmering spider webs and many species of foraging birds.

Signs warned of alligators, but our reptilian experiences were highlighted that day with numerous lizards and skinks, not alligators.

Horton Pond–named after Major William Horton, a land owner here in the 1740s–is a testament to the island’s ongoing conservation efforts. With fund-raising donations and the Jekyll Island Authority, the pond was updated in 2014.

It has a handsome observation deck, providing great views of the entire pond, while protecting the wild denizens.

We saw woodpeckers, songbirds, anhingas, and herons in the pond’s surrounding trees, and dozens of native softshell turtles swimming in the naturally tanic waters.

This softshell turtle is taking advantage of the floating raft anchored in the pond.

We had a great time on the north tip of the island, too. Clam Creek Road offers picnicking and wildlife viewing and an abundant plethora of tidal wildlife. I could easily and joyously have spent the entire day here.

The parking lot at Clam Creek was mellow and not teeming with cars and people, affording us the opportunity to enjoy this boat-tailed grackle bathing (and singing) in a puddle.

There is an extensive fishing pier, here, too. Built in 1969, it is a large T-shaped concrete structure that juts 360 feet (110 m) into the waters of St. Simons Sound. I’ve read there’s good fishing: red drum, spotted seatrout, Spanish mackerel, flounder, shark, and more, as well as shrimp and blue crabs.

In the photo below you can see what the pier looks like at most moments. It was low tide, and seemingly quiet and low-key, but there was a lot going on under the surface.

We were having a great time spotting shorebirds and hermit crabs, and all the wildlife who live in this plentiful world.

And then an incredible event happened.

A super giant cargo ship quietly passed by.

The Bravery Ace is 623 feet (190 m) long and 104 feet (32 m) wide. It’s called a Vehicles Carrier, transports thousands of cars and trucks.

You can see how big it is compared to the pier. It stirred the waters as it slowly labored by.

Although we stopped and stared at this magnificent vessel, the gulls didn’t stop picking the dead crabs apart and the shorebirds were undeterred in their feeding frenzy.

I hope to one day return to this Georgia gem. But in the meantime, I have sweet memories of a precious day on Jekyll Island.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Two Jekyll Island websites: Wikipedia and Jekyll Island.com

Sherpa Guides | Georgia | Coast | Jekyll Island
Courtesy Sherpa Guides.com

Georgia’s 14 Barrier Islands, Courtesy herbmiles.com

Driftwood Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Info: Golden Ray Wikipedia

More Info: Golden Isles of Georgia Wikipedia

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

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

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

A Salute to Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bobcat comes through several nights a week.

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

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

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

Brush rabbits appreciate the water tray too.

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

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

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

But what a lively and lovely summer it has been.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.