Human-sized Birds

Southern Cassowary, Queensland, Australia

There are four bird species on the planet that are as tall as humans: the Ratites. They are all flightless.

 

Birds that are classified as ratites are so-named from the Latin ratis, for raft. A raft is a vessel that has no keel, and a ratite is a bird that has no keel. In bird anatomy, feather muscles attach to the keel or sternum (breastbone); and if there is no keel, the bird is flightless.

Emu, Mareeba Wetlands, Queensland

In an earlier era, there were more ratites on earth. Today there are these four tall species–ostrich, emu, cassowary, rhea–and New Zealand’s dwindling population of small ratites, the kiwis.

 

Ratite Wikipedia

Southern Cassowary adult with chicks, Queensland, Australia

They date back 56 million years, and look as prehistoric as they are–large round bodies on long legs, with long necks.

 

Ratites have two- or three-toed feet, often used for kicking, and lay very large eggs, the largest in the world. Omnivores, they prefer roots, seeds, and leaves; but will also eat insects or small animals if necessary. They have wings but do not fly, and instead run at very fast speeds.

Ostrich, male, East Africa

Ostrich. The largest and heaviest land bird in the world…and also the fastest. With strong legs, they can sprint up to 43 miles per hour (70 kph), and maintain a steady speed of 31 mph (50 kph).

 

They also have the largest eyes of any land invertebrate. With their excellent eyesight, nine foot height (2.8m), and sprinting abilities, ostriches have many ways to escape African predators.

Ostrich Pair, resting, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

We usually found them in the tall African grass in small groups of three and four. They disappeared quickly whenever our jeep approached, running with long strides.

 

Emus can only be found in Australia. They are the second-largest bird, after the ostrich, reaching up to 6.2 feet tall (1.9m). They were prominent in ancient Aboriginal mythology, and remain revered in Australia today as the national bird.

Australian Coat of Arms, emu on right

Emus at Mareeba Wetlands

One sizzling day on a remote preserve in Mareeba, Queensland, we were visited by a group of four emus. We were under shade, looking out at the dusty, deserted landscape when an emu soundlessly approached from around the corner. We remained still, waiting to see what would happen.

 

Then another one came along, and two more. They had their heads down, nibbling, walking around in search of food.

 

They stayed so long that eventually we moved on.

 

Cassowary.  Another Australian ratite, they can also be found in New Guinea, Indonesia, and a few nearby islands…but there are very few left in the world. This is the third tallest bird in the world, after ostrich and emu.

 

Southern Cassowary, male, Australia

While many of the cassowary features are similar to the aforementioned ratites, its unique head casque, made of keratin, is exclusive. They are also the most brightly colored of the four tall ratites, and most dangerous, known to kill humans with their blade-like foot claw.

 

Every Australian we talked to said they had never seen a cassowary and we wouldn’t either.

 

Not only did we see one, we saw several, and one experience was more than memorable, it was terrifying.

Daintree Cassowary Crossing

We were in the rainforest with our guide when a male cassowary approached us. For about one minute he was unperturbed. Then he started walking slowly around in a circle with stiff legs, sort of stomping. Our guide, in a calculated calm voice quietly said, “It’s time to leave.”

 

Although we backed up and gave the cassowary his space, the bird advanced. The guide whispered his instructions: do not turn your backs, do not run. So we continued backing up–Athena, the guide, and I. But the cassowary continued advancing.

 

Our guide quickly tried something else. He stood beside a large tree, forming a sort of shield; told us to continue backing up behind his shield. We backed ourselves out of the forest and waited for the guide. Ten long minutes later, the guide joined us.

 

We didn’t know it, but apparently we were near the cassowary’s hidden ground nest.

 

The rhea is the only tall ratite I have not seen. Grassland birds that look much like the ostrich and emu, rheas live in different parts of South America.

Greater rhea pair arp.jpg

Greater Rhea. Photo Adrian Pingstone. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

There might be a day when I see a rhea in the wild, and then I will have the privilege of saying I’ve seen all four human-sized ratites.

 

But I’m in no hurry for this, because I’ve had so many exhilarating ratite experiences…enough to last me a lifetime.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander, except rhea

Australian Emu

 

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African Safari: The Big Five

Leopard, Zambia

It is a pleasure to share highlights of the classic “Big Five” animals of the African savannah: leopard, elephant, lion, rhinoceros, and buffalo. Here are a few personal experiences I have had with the Big Five.

 

In an earlier era they were so-named because they were the five most challenging animals to shoot. Fortunately, the trophy game hunters are the minority these days.

 

Most safari visitors of today cherish these animals; and the only capture is simply via cameras.

 

Elephant cow and calf, Botswana

Lion, Botswana

Most of us know about the ongoing problems with habitat destruction and unprecedented poaching. To read about it, here is a New York Times article: The Big Five. 

 

White Rhinos, Kenya, Africa

 

Leopard, Okavango Delta, Botswana

1. The African Leopard. A cat of extreme stealth and strength, the leopard hunts primarily at night. With a diet that is least particular of all African carnivores, they have been found to have 30 different prey species in Serengeti National Park alone. In addition, they will attack and take down an animal three times their size.

Leopard Pair, Zambia

I came to breakfast one morning, wondering about a sound I had heard right outside our tent during the night, asked the guide at our table. He stopped eating his scrambled eggs, and proceeded to make one animal sound after another, pausing between each one. It was an impressive, and amusing, repertoire.

 

When he made the gruff sound of a rhythmic saw going back and forth through a piece of wood, I piped, “That’s it.”

He replied, “Leopard.”

Leopard, Zambia

Leopard kill prey so big they cannot always eat them at once, and often cache it in a tree for later consumption. Sometimes, they can be found in the tree during the day, sleeping.

 

Leopard Wikipedia.

 

African Elephants, Zambia

2. African Elephant. What I like best about this behemoth: watching them use their trunks in a myriad of ways; listening to their steady breathing and conversations; and watching a herd of cow elephants teach their young. Their enormous size, and trumpeting signals, rate high on my list of thrills, too.

African elephant, grey heron, Zambia

African elephant, Zambia

Elephants, Tanzania, Africa

 

Elephant juvenile, Botswana

African elephant, Zambia

Elephants sparring, Chobe River, Botswana

Elephant Wikipedia.

 

3. African Lion. The first time I saw a wild lioness, she took my breath away. The golden eyes and her lustrous coat were stunning to look at; but it was the courage and confidence of her swagger that has remained with me.

Lioness, Botswana

Serengeti Sunrise, lionness

Lion cubs, Serengeti

In lion prides, the lioness is the hunter, and there is much to learn from her wisdom. So many times we watched a lioness stalking prey, quietly sneaking up, and ready to prance. And then, more often than not, she subsequently aborted the mission.

 

Lionesses are constantly strategizing the potential for success in each endeavor–if the expenditure is more than the prize, she will do nothing and move on, confident of a better opportunity.

Lioness contemplating buffalo, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

Lion, Botswana

We often came upon lions in the morning, after they’d had a night of successful hunting. They laid in shade or by a pond with full bellies, sleepy eyes, and fresh wounds.

 

Lioness, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

Lion Wikipedia.

 

4. African Rhinoceros. Seeing a rhino in the wild is a thing of the past, due to illegal poaching that has drastically reduced their populations. But there are still some parks where they are fiercely protected.

White Rhino Family, Kenya

Rhinos are unique-looking, with their heavy, barrel-shaped bodies on short legs, two horns, and prehistoric presence. There are two African species, the white and black; and neither are white nor black, but varying colors of gray and brown.

 

It is the white rhino, a grazer, we see on safaris and photographed here.

Rhinoceros Wikipedia.

 

Buffalo, Zambia

5. African Buffalo. I shiver just looking at photos of this beast. Their prominent horns cover much of the face, measuring up to 40 inches across (100cm), used for hooking and goring.

 

They are grazers, like the white rhino, so you often come across them in the savannah grass. How many times we have come around a corner in the jeep to find a buffalo herd hidden in the tall grass or behind a few shrubs. Every single time, my heart jumps for an instant.

Buffalo herd, Botswana

Serengeti Elephant and Buffalo

Buffalo herd, Zambia

Their non-human predators are few: the crocodile and the lion. Who but a lion would take on the buffalo…and win.

 

African Buffalo Wikipedia

 

Thanks for joining us on safari. Or in Swahili, it is “Asante” (thank you).

 

Written by Jet Eliot

All photos by Athena Alexander

Athena, Zambia

Jet in purple shirt, Zambia

Countries where you can see all of the Big Five, per Wikipedia: Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Uganda, Namibia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Malawi.

 

A Glimpse of Trinidad

Purple Honeycreeper (male)

One of the many joys of birding in other countries is spending time with local guides. Whether it’s driving through the towns or bumping along on a back road, for a short, sweet time we are receiving the gift of a glimpse into their lives.

 

Trinidad is a small island in the West Indies, located eight miles (12 km) off the northeastern coast of Venezuela. It has rainforests and plantations, cities and towns, fishing, and steel drum music. Their economy is based largely on the export of oil and natural gas products. Wikipedia Trinidad overview

 

It was originally called “Land of the Hummingbird” by the South American Lokono people…and hummingbirds still grace the rainforests. Some of the most beautiful hummingbirds in the world live here.

 

And there are a lot of birds on this tropical island, 460 different species.

Dunston Cave stream, Trinidad

 

Green Honeycreeper, male

During our six days in Trinidad, our modest accommodations were located in a mountain rainforest eco-lodge. Asa Wright Nature Centre. For us, every day was about finding the birds.

 

Some days the guide drove a few of us into town, visiting birding spots like sewage ponds, swamps, and an old abandoned army base. I realize that doesn’t sound glorious, but it was.

 

One afternoon we went to the Caroni Swamp, a 12,000-acre mangrove wetland famous for the nightly arrival of huge flocks of scarlet ibis.

 

Caroni Swamp post.

Scarlet ibis, Caroni Swamp

That was magical. And I also loved cruising the back roads, not only for the panoply of exotic birds, but to see native Trinidadians in their daily routines.

Ranger releasing a caiman spotted and called-in by a local resident. Caroni Swamp

 

After-school scene

 

Watermelon truck and fruit stand

 

Lapwings, creekside

Some of the scraggliest trees were the sites of dozens of colorful birds. We watched a tufted coquette, one of the tiniest and showiest hummingbirds in the world, hassling a much-bigger owl.

Tufted coquette, male

 

There were often tanagers everywhere you looked.

Silver-beaked Tanager

 

In a residential neighborhood on a mountainside we watched yellow-rumped caciques among their needle residences, while squawking macaws flew by.

 

Yellow-rumped Caciques at nests

 

We were birding among cacoa trees when a Rastafarian silently walked by extending the two-finger peace symbol.

Rastafarian

Unripe cacao pods

 

This is a construction site near our lodge, we passed it at least twice a day. They have perpetual wash-outs here, during heavy rains.

 

Construction Site

When we weren’t busy trying to spot a bird, one or another of us in the group would ask our guide questions about the country; school system, local or national government, or more personal questions. Some guides like to tell the local folk stories about certain trees or birds.

 

We had different guides every day while in Trinidad, and they all revealed different stories.

 

One guide often pointed out the crops we were looking at, how the product was used, how you ate it and what it tasted like. He liked to cook so he would tell us how to fix it and flavor it.

 

While in a traffic jam, one guide explained they have a lot of traffic in Trinidad because it is so cheap to drive a car, fuel costs almost nothing.

Our guide, Rudall, looking for macaws

On top of being excellent birders, as I often point out, guides are fluent in many languages, knowledgeable about the science of birds, and savvy about the biology and botany of the area.

 

What a gift it is to drive through a foreign country, listening to a person tell about his country and its history, his friends and family, his surroundings. In Trinidad it was always men who were the guides, but I was happy to see a few women naturalist trainees at the Asa Wright Nature Centre.

 

Always, no matter what country we are in, it boils down to the same thing for all of us:

 

We strive to establish a comfortable and productive life, connect with loved ones and neighbors, and work through our troubles, our hopes, and our fears.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Posts I’ve written about special birds seen in Trinidad:

Boat Guide (R) and Captain (L) on nearby Little Tobago Island

 

Angel Island, Yesterday and Today

Angel Island, SF Bay

This island in the middle of San Francisco Bay is a playground for residents and visitors, a wilderness for wildlife, and a California Historical Landmark revealing a rich history.

 

As it has been for centuries, the only way to get to Angel Island is by boat. Most people take the public ferry system; private boat access is also available. Ferry schedules vary by season, info below.

Angel Island Tiburon Ferry arriving at Angel Island, Tiburon in background

 

The boat ride is an adventure in itself, and sets the scene for a day of merriment. Notice the jellyfish photo at the end of the post–we saw it while on board in the Tiburon harbor.

 

Once on the island, most people hike or bike or take the tram to explore this 1.2 square mile (3.107 km2) island, usually staying just for the day. There is also camping, and some student and scout groups do overnight trips. Occasionally there are public events, like the upcoming marathon in June.

 

Ayala Cove, Angel Island

Links:

Wikipedia overview

Angel Island State Park, access and activities

Angel Island Conservancy, history and upcoming events

 

In addition to recreational outdoor activities, there are plenty of spots to picnic and admire the spectacular views.

Angel Island view, looking out at Alcatraz and SF skyline

Angel Island view, looking at Golden Gate Bridge

Angel Island has a diverse history.

 

Thousands of years ago, the Coast Miwok Native Americans inhabited much of the Bay Area, including Angel Island. They lived by hunting and gathering, and came to the island on boats made of reeds. They established camps, hunted and fished; typically occupying the island for the summer months.

 

In 1775 the first-known Spanish ship arrived in the main cove. The commander was Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala, and the island’s main docking port is named after him. He named the island “Isla de los Angeles.”

 

Thereafter many different ships stopped in Ayala Cove to gather wood and replenish.

 

Western Bluebird on Angel Island

From “Two Years Before the Mast” by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.:

In 1835 the island was “covered with trees to the water’s edge.” He tells about his days of gathering wood on Angel Island, difficulties with the weather and tide in landing, frost in the night, and sleeping on a bed of wet logs.

 

“…before sunrise, in the grey of the morning, we had to wade off, nearly up to our hips in water, to load the skiff with the wood by arms-full.”

 

The seafarers called it “Wood Island.”

Richard Henry Dana, Jr. — 1842

 

Angel Island then became a Mexican Ranch, for a short time. For much of the 1800s, the island was government-owned, using the island for many purposes.

 

Mount Livermore

Angel Island, ca. 1880. Courtesy California Parks, http://www.150.parks.ca.gov

 

Located in the middle of the bay, with a 788-foot (240 m) mountain look-out, it was considered a good place for defending the Bay Area.

 

Artillery and military structures were built here for the American Civil War, the Spanish American War, and both world wars. Remnants of historic buildings remain on the island today.

 

There are Angel Island maps like this posted all over the island for hikers and bikers

By the 1950s, most military operations had ceased, but the U.S. Government still owned the island.

 

Then along came Caroline Livermore, a successful conservationist. She spearheaded the movement to raise funds and purchase the island from the government; turn it into a park.

Brown Creeper, Angel Island

 

It was in 1955 when Angel Island became a park, eventually leading to its current status as a California State Park. Angel Island’s highest peak is named after her.

Caroline Livermore

Caroline Sealy Livermore, 1885-1968. Courtesy California Parks, http://www.150.parks.ca.gov

 

Angel Island has been a park for over half a century. Many individuals, organizations, and civic services have worked diligently to protect and support this sweet island.

 

As we playfully de-board the boat, stepping onto the island for a day of fun, how lucky we are to have this park in the middle of the bay to enjoy the sea air, and give our minds the day off.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

Jellyfish we saw in Tiburon Harbor from the ferry boat (ghostly image in near-center of photo)

 

Angel Island from Alcatraz

 

Underneath the Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge is always notable no matter how many times you’ve experienced it. Another extra special delight is going under the bridge.

 

Public tours, private charters, and privately-owned watercraft cruise beneath the orange span every day. Tourist or resident, we all like to visit the waters under this famous bridge.

I was on a birdwatching boat recently on the San Francisco Bay. Even though it was January, we had lucked out with the weather and the waters were calm and the sun was bright. Coastal bird flocks were our destination.

 

While still docked, the guide said, “I have a surprise for you.”

 

We were a boat-load of birders heading out to see what the herring were attracting. What could be more exciting than this?

 

“The Captain says the water is calm enough, we can go under the Golden Gate Bridge today.”

 

Everyone cheered.

 

When you’re on the bridge there is one prevailing sound: the traffic. Six lanes of fast-moving traffic and a constant thu-dud…thu-dud…thu-dud of vehicles speeding across the highway grates. It’s wonderful.

 

But when you’re under the bridge, all you hear are the wind and the water.

 

Harbor seals relaxed in the sun near their prime-real-estate beach caves. Western grebes, black oystercatchers, and western gulls were busy all around us.

Harbor Seals

From the water, the bridge is 220 feet (67 m) above you, and seems so far away.

 

The water under the bridge is turbulent, and there are always warnings to beware. The majority of the under-bridge adventurers are experienced boaters, but sometimes a few reckless individuals are there to catch a thrill, too.

Surfers at the Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco

There are many factors here at the conjunction of the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean that make the water dangerous.

 

There are two different kinds of water. The Bay water is runoff from the surrounding land, it is earth-warmed and carries silt. Contrastingly, the Pacific Ocean is cold, nutrient-rich water stirred by upwellings and tides. The two different water types clash here and funnel through a narrow land constriction, thereby creating a tumultuous disturbance.

 

In addition, underneath the water is an ever-changing sea floor. Tectonics, dredging, tidal currents, and many other alterations have re-shaped the underwater landscape year after year. U.S. Geological Service images, click here.

Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands

Black Oystercatchers more interested in barnacles than the Bridge

Defunct military forts stand at each end of the Golden Gate Bridge, these are also good spots for getting a close-up underneath view. Fort Point and Fort Baker.  Both are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Golden Gate Bridge from Fort Point, San Francisco, California

Post I wrote about Fort Point. 

Golden Gate Bridge Facts

 

If you have ever visited this iconic bridge, you know the specialness to which I refer. We each leave a little bit of our heart in San Francisco.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Hippos of Zambia

Zambia

Every sighting of a hippo is an absolute thrill. They have that huge 1.5 ton body on short, stubby legs, topped by a bulbous face with little eyes and tiny ears. Zambia, located in the central lower third of Africa, is home to the world’s largest population of wild hippos.

 

Found only in Africa, hippopotamus live in rivers, lakes, and swamps throughout the sub-Saharan countries. There are three major rivers in Zambia, and many sources of fresh water.

Zambia hippos at river, Luangwa Valley

Hippos and Fishermen, Luangwa River, Zambia

Hippopotamus, Botswana

Hippo hanging out with two bird species: the heron, and the oxpeckers on his back. Zambia, Luangwa Valley

Hippo, Luangwa Valley, Zambia

Poached for their meat and ivory teeth, hippo populations are steadily declining, and their conservation status is now listed as Vulnerable. See maps below.

 

Unlike many African mammals with fur hides, hippos have no fur and very little hair. They therefore spend much time under water or in mud, to protect their skin from drying out under the harsh African sun. They also secrete acidic compounds that act as a sunscreen, but they are not enough to prevent their skin from cracking.

Hippo luxuriating in mud

Hippopotamus amphibious. The name itself indicates amphibious qualities of living on land and in water. The Greek translation: river horse.

Hippo Pool at night, Zambia

Zambia

With nostrils, eyes, and ears situated high on the skull, they can continue breathing while staying under water. They can also close their nostrils under water and remain submerged for many minutes. I like to listen when they come up from under water; they take a breath of air, just like us humans, and whales.

 

Their closest living relative, in fact, is the whale, cetaceans. 

 

Hippos can walk on the river bottom; and they sleep, mate, and give birth in the water, too.

Hippo family

 

Wikipedia Hippopotamus

 

Being the third largest land mammal on earth (after the elephant and rhinoceros), they look like they’re not very fast animals. But they can run swiftly for short distances, clocked at 19 mph (30 km/h)…and are aggressive animals.

Scraped from fights, and sporting an oxpecker (bird) on its back

A typical day for a hippopotamus is to remain in the water during the hottest hours, then come out when it is cooler, to feed. During the day you’ll find them in and around water, grunting a lot, wallowing, and sleeping. Every once in awhile one will do a 360 degree barrel roll, to moisten any exposed skin.

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, hippos and cattle egrets

 

Then at day’s end when temperatures have cooled, they come onto land to graze.

Zambia

 

Hip-hippo-hooray for yet another incredible creature on earth.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Conservation organization for hippos: African Wildlife Foundation

 

Hippo distribution.gif

Range map African hippopotamus. Red=Historic range, Green=2008 populations. Courtesy Wikipedia

Image result for map of africa

Zambia, Luangwa Valley

 

Snow Geese are Heading Home

It’s that time of year when the snow geese are beginning their long journey home. The fields of central California’s Pacific Flyway are drying up, the winter rains seem to be done. These snow geese are starting their return migration to Alaska and the Canadian arctic.

 

They have spent the winter here living on marshes, fields, and open habitats.  Preferring to be near water, this vegetarian bird forages on grasses, shrubs, tubers, and seeds.

Snow Geese

Snow Geese and Sutter Buttes

About half of a snow goose’s year is spent away from home, migrating and wintering in warm locations all across the country. See map at end.

 

More snow goose info here.

 

When migrating, they fly very high, and take one of four different North American corridors, or flyways, to and from their breeding grounds. Our geese here in central California occupy the Pacific Flyway (green, west coast on this map directly below).

 

A gregarious bird, they migrate in large flocks and nest in colonies.

Courtesy Wikipedia

We visited several northern California wintering grounds last month. As some of you know, Athena (photographer and partner) and I have been returning to this area every winter for over a quarter-century.

 

Every visit we record all the bird species we’ve seen, enter the information in birding software. We now have a substantial idea of the migrating species here every winter.

Snow Geese, Sacramento NWR

Each year is a different story. Species populations vary depending on weather, food supply, habitat degradation, and breeding success. In the span of this many years, most bird species recover whatever hardship they had, and eventually we see the numbers back up again. Some species, like the bald eagle, even increase. Some species decline.

 

As far as snow goose populations go, this year there were enormous numbers of them, more than we have seen in many years.

 

I have read articles and books by ornithologists and birders from long ago, like John James Audubon, or more recently, Aldo Leopold and Roger Tory Peterson. Even some fiction writers from bygone years describe certain birds in their narratives.

 

I pay attention to the species they write about, a bird they are happy to see, how they describe it to the reader. Sometimes those species have been extinct for some time, or is a bird that I know would be nearly impossible to see anymore, there are so few of them left.

 

What I treasure about the snow geese, therefore, is their abundance–the way they darken the sky with their masses, fill the air with their boisterous, lively sounds. They still have a presence on this planet.

 

Snow geese, Sacramento Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, CA

 

Listen to a minute of this recording, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Snow Geese, audio, large flock. 

 

They’ve had a mild winter here this year, have fattened up for the journey north, and now they begin their return trip.

Snow Goose “grin patch”

A seasonal farewell salute to this loveable bird, I look forward to seeing them again next winter.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

image of range map for Snow Goose

Snow Goose Range Map, provided by Birds of North America