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.

 

 

 

Sea Jellies

Purple-striped Jelly

Jellyfish, or sea jellies, can be found in waters all around the world, but they are primarily translucent and difficult to see. For a good look at them, a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium is rewarding.

 

Highly regarded around the world, the Monterey Bay Aquarium houses 35,000 animals of over 550 species. The Aquarium is also prominent in research and commitment toward ocean protection and public awareness.

 

Monterey Bay Aquarium Wikipedia

 

Spotted Comb Jelly

 

Black Sea Nettles

 

They have many exhibits with sea creatures, and about a dozen tanks filled with different kinds of sea jellies. (The term “jellyfish” has officially been replaced by “sea jellies” because jellies do not have spines and are therefore not fish. I use the terms interchangeably here.)

 

Sea jellies are gelatinous invertebrates and 95% water, and appear almost invisible in the underwater world. To aid with viewing, the aquarium tank backgrounds are blue and illuminated by side lights.

 

You can see in this photo what a sea jelly (center) in the San Francisco Bay really looks like — ghostly and almost imperceptible.

Sea Jelly in San Francisco Bay, Tiburon Harbor

 

Sea jellies require currents for locomotion. In public aquariums,  there is a complex system for water flow, with precise inflow and outflow.

 

Sea Gooseberry Jelly

 

According to World Atlas, there are more than 2,000 species of jellyfish in the world, and it is thought that there are over 300,000 species yet to be discovered.

 

The sea nettles and purple-striped jellies photographed here are found along California’s Pacific coast. They are highly efficient in their movement, using muscles in their umbrella-shaped bell to propel; this is also where the mouth and digestive system exist.

Purple-striped Jelly pair

Tentacles are the long stringy body parts, and have stinging cells, or nematocysts, that sting their prey. The “arms” are frilly extensions, and move the prey to the mouth.

 

Jellyfish anatomy. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

It is a marvelous experience to observe this exhibit…mesmerizing. A dark room with colorful, glowing cases filled with exotic sea jellies. Soft music accompanies as we watch the jellies rhythmically pulse and propel throughout the illuminated tanks.

 

Jelly Live Web Cam at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

 

But . . . if you have ever been stung by a jellyfish, and I have, you don’t forget the sting, no matter how attractive and enticing the jellies appear.

 

The first time, Athena and I were snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef when we came upon eight or ten sea turtles in one small area. Usually you see one or two turtles, but here we were thrilled to find so many.

 

When we swam respectfully near, we found ourselves in massive clouds of sea jellies. Each jellyfish was the size of a large coin, and there were thousands. The turtles, we realized too late, were there to eat the jellyfish.

 

Stung instantly and by the dozens, we shot out of that cloud like rockets. Came to the surface, stunned. Even so, we both laughed then and there, because the experience was so atrociously the opposite of what we had expected.

 

Within 24 hours the bites had disappeared; and thereafter underwater garments were purchased.

 

Most jellyfish stings are not deadly, but a few species can produce stings fatal to humans.

 

Usually I prefer seeing creatures in the wild, over observing them in an exhibit. But in the case of sea jellies, I think these other-worldly and sting-free exhibits are just the ticket.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Black Sea Nettles

 

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.

 

 

 

Parade of Leafcutter Ants

2013

Leafcutter Ants, Belize

Leafcutter ants are productive farmers with an elaborate society based on ant-fungus mutualism; i.e., a symbiotic relationship between the ant and the fungus. One day last month I had the joy of watching some especially clever ants taking a shortcut.

 

The ants get safe, underground living accommodations from the fungus, including a means to feed their ant larvae. And in turn, the ants keep the fungus fed and cleaned. Although the ants don’t actually eat from their fungal garden, they chew up the delivered leaves to decompose for the nest.

 

Many colonies contain approximately one million ants, but there can be as many as 8-10 million ants.

 

The ants bite off a piece of leaf and carry it back to the fungal garden, their underground nest. This is what we humans see as each ant carries a leaf chunk down the trail. An underground nest can grow to more than 98 feet (30 m) across, with additional chambers leading off of that.

 

Leafcutter Ant carrying leaf spear

There are many tasks in a community this large, and each individual has a specific role including the queen, several castes of workers, foragers, and soldiers.

 

Next to humans, they have the largest and most complex animal society on earth.

 

Leafcutter Ants Wikipedia

 

I’ve seen leafcutter ants in many tropical venues, and always on a forest trail or in grass. They often have a conspicuous trail, because there are so many ants moving back and forth that eventually they wear down the vegetation, as seen here.

 

Leafcutter Ant trails in grass (bottom right and leading from plant on top left)

 

Lodge Pool, Belize

 

One day Athena and I were swimming at the lodge pool, when we noticed little morsels of leaf parading across the floor tiles. There weren’t that many, maybe one ant every foot (.30 meter) or so. I don’t think other people would have even noticed them, but I am always on the lookout for leafcutters, because I think they are one of the most amazing creatures on earth.

 

The stamina! The industriousness! The tenacity of a leafcutter ant is completely inspiring. Their strength is astounding. They can carry 12-20 times their body weight.

 

After some investigation, we discovered they were taking a rainforest shortcut through the pool area. They entered at one end of the pool enclosure, walked across the pink floor tiles, and exited at the other end. This was about a 50-60 foot long (15-18 m) trail. They traveled along the floor edge, near the plantings, under the lounge chairs.

 

There were places where water was on the floor, which upset the parade. A simple small puddle threw off their scent. Here they circled around for a half minute or so, but would then stabilize, get back on track, and eventually find their way to the exit rock.

Leafcutter Ant disoriented by water spot

Each one took the exact same trail, and they all vanished at the same place. The exit rock is in the center of this photo below–there was a gap between the second and third rocks, about the size of a fist.

Rock exit, between second and third rocks

 

Ant with leaf exiting, in shadow of rock on right

As the plot thickened, we went outside the pool enclosure, thinking there would be a continued trail. But instead they were gone. They had vanished underground, reached their destination. There we stood in our dripping pool clothes, fascinated.

 

It was a very hot, humid day; all the birds were resting, all the humans were resting. But the leafcutter ants, they just kept marching.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Leafcutter Ants, Costa Rica

 

The Delta’s Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

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

 

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

 

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

 

Tundra Swans and Northern Shovelers

 

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

 

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

 

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

 

Wikipedia Sandhill Cranes

 

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

 

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

 

Sandhill Cranes; parent on right, juvenile on left

 

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

 

Sandhill cranes, California

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

 

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

 

Black Phoebe

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Black-necked Stilts

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

 

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

 

Sandhill Crane dance

 

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

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Sandhill Cranes, Lodi, Calif.

 

 

Raptors in Autumn

Barred Owl, Texas

Every fall thousands and thousands of raptors in North America migrate south for the winter as their food supplies begin to wane. Here are some basic facts about raptors and where to find them as we enter into the northern hemisphere’s autumn.

 

Also known as birds of prey, raptors include many different species. Some more commonly known raptors are: eagles, ospreys, kites, hawks, vultures, falcons, and owls.

Osprey in Mangroves

Not all raptors migrate. It depends on how cold the winters get, if there is enough available prey. We are fortunate in Northern California to see many raptor species in all seasons.

 

Other parts of the country, however, have consistently cold winter weather and, consequently, raptor migration every autumn.

 

Snail Kite

 

Although raptor migration lasts roughly between August and November, late September is the prime time for watching these grand birds.

 

Bald Eagle, California. This raptor almost went extinct.

With their sturdy wings and broad wing-spans, they utilize upward air currents, i.e. thermals, to assist with their long flights. The migrating populations concentrate along mountain ridge lines, coast lines, and other topographical features to take advantage of the updrafts.

 

See the map below for raptor migration pathways in North America.

Merlin, Sacramento NWR, California

American Kestrel, California

Turkey vulture pair on fence, drying wings; Calif. coast

 

There are numerous predictable spots for hawkwatching in North America, where anyone can observe migrating raptors, especially hawks.

 

Two popular U.S. hawkwatch stations I have visited are Cape May, NJ on the east coast; and Hawk Hill outside San Francisco on the west coast. Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania is the most famous hawkwatch station in the U.S.

Red-tailed Hawk in rain, California

 

Cooper’s Hawk, California

 

Because migrating hawks fly high over land masses, the birds are usually far away from us ground-dwellers. Raptor migration birding, therefore, engages in a different kind of bird-observing technique. There are no bird sounds or calls, and no close-up views for bird identification. Instead, birders systematically scan the sky with binoculars or scopes; and identify the species by silhouette, profile, size, plumage, and flight behavior.

 

Many times I have stood beside hawkwatchers with my own high-powered binoculars looking at what they look at, as they call out their sightings. Usually, to the bare eye, the hawk is the size of a rice grain.

 

Data is recorded and posted daily. The information gleaned from it is paramount in raptor conservation.

 

Osprey, Florida

 

Red-tailed hawk with chick, California

 

California Condor, Calif. — another raptor we almost lost to extinction

 

Great Horned Owlet, California

 

Raptors are important birds for providing our planet with a healthy ecosystem.

 

Raptor Conservation Wikipedia

 

If you are interested in finding a Hawkwatch venue in North America, hawkcount.org provides links to approximately one hundred sites.

 

For folks who just enjoy seeing a powerful bird soaring overhead, now is a good time of year to keep your eyes open and your neck craned.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander, all North American raptors

PS – For my friends–you’ll be happy to know Athena and I are moving  home tomorrow, after 11.5 months displacement following the October 2017 Wine Country fires. This is our ninth and final move in the post-fire event. Our own migration.

 

Hawk Mountain Raptor Migration Path Map

North American Raptor Migration Pathways. Courtesy hawkmountain.org

 

Happy Solstice

Monarch Butterfly, Horicon Marsh, WI

Those of us in the northern hemisphere are entering into summer solstice this week, celebrating the longest day of the year and the beginning of summer. The word solstice derives from the Latin for sun (sol) and to stand still (sistere).

 

Here are a few North American summer moments, when the power of the sun (and the camera) slowed the natural world down to a perfect stand-still.

Mother Moose and calf, Rocky Mtn. Nat’l. Park, Colorado

 

 

Common Green Darner, Anax junius. California

It’s a quiet moment when dragonflies cruise by–nothing says summer days like a dragonfly.

Horicon Marsh

Halloween Pennant Dragonfly, Wisconsin

 

Insects and wildflowers grace us with color and vibrance as they busily gather sustenance during these longest of days.

Hypericum coccinum, aka Gold Wire, with ladybug. California

 

Great Spangled Fritillary (female), Wyoming

And is there a more remarkable insect than the butterfly? I don’t think so.

 

The miracle of life in four distinct stages. They start out the warm season as an egg, hatch into a tiny caterpillar, then forage their way across the host plant, a legacy from their mother.

 

As they continue to eat, they grow into plump caterpillars until they sense the time for pupation, and form their own protective chrysalis. Then one day they stretch out of the chrysalis, unfurl wings, and fly off.

 

Anise Swallowtail caterpillar, California

 

Anise Swallowtail Butterfly, California

 

Another summer gift for us to behold: birds fledging from their nests, launching into their first flights.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher nestlings, 15 days of life. They fledged soon after.

 

Carolina Wren, Texas; parent tending the nest

 

Summer is a time for singing, and no birds enchant us more with melodious sweetness than the songbirds.

Prairie Dickcissel, Attwater Preserve, Texas

 

Common Yellowthroat, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

 

Rivers and ponds, forests and prairies, suburbs, cities and countrysides all come alive in summer.

Marsh meadow, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

Ft. Collins park, Colorado

We humans are cradled by the sun, presented with a whirlwind of nature during these long and productive days. We, too, sing and flutter, grow and frolic.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander

I am taking a short summer break, my friends, will return in a few weeks. I hope your days, whether they’re going into summer or winter, are filled with beautiful moments.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly, California

 

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

 

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