Cormorants and More, Richardson Bay

Cormorants in San Francisco Bay

Because they are common and widespread, sometimes I take cormorants for granted.  Then one day I found myself living on the San Francisco Bay, in temporary housing, and I witnessed some unique behavior.

 

In the Bay Area the double-crested cormorant is the prevalent species. They spend their day swimming and flying in search of fish, and can often be seen diving underwater for prey. They are excellent divers, and have webbed feet for fast underwater propulsion.

 

Wikipedia Double-crested Cormorant

 

On my first day here, standing on the balcony overlooking the bay, I noticed a very large flock of cormorants down at the water. There were hundreds of the black sea birds, and they were synchronistically flying in the same direction. They swirled together in a great dance, slightly above the water’s surface.

 

Most of us have observed individual cormorants on land, spreading their wings, drying out. But this enormous flock all swooping together was new to me.

I had many other tasks to contend with, while we sort out the remains of our fire-damaged property, so I was soon off to something else. But throughout the week I continued to notice this phenomenon. I was seeing it almost every day, and always in the early morning.

Cormorants, SF Bay, Streets of San Francisco in background

Cormorants are colonial nesters, and at night they roost in large groups. From the balcony I noticed they have a favorite sea wall, where they congregate. When they take off in the morning, they often do so together.

 

Then I learned why they fly together:  for better fishing.

 

Although they do not always flock in groups this large, when it does occur, they form a line. The line of birds, close to the water, follow the fish underwater and chase them. More cormorants opportunistically join the flock, sometimes thousands.

 

They often fly in a “V” shape and there is a hierarchy to the front line; sometimes there are hundreds, sometimes just a dozen. They surge and swoosh and make abrupt directional changes, always following the fish underwater.

 

If the fish escape the flying predators, the cormorants quickly disperse.

 

But if the cormorants are triumphant and succeed in snatching the fish, then there is much splashing.

 

Ornithological Study on the Cormorant Fishing Activity 

 

Double-crested Cormorant

I went down to the water one morning this week to photograph the big flocks. I didn’t find the huge flocks, but I watched thousands of cormorants heading out for a day of fishing.

 

And while I was photographing the cormorants, I spotted a sea lion. I was watching the sea lion, waiting for it to re-surface after a dive, when the most marvelous thing happened.

 

A whale surfaced right in front of me. It gave the characteristic sigh sound, of breathing air, and breached the water’s surface. I enjoyed one second of seeing the whale’s barnacled back, and then it disappeared. Based on the size and color, and since it is their migration time, I am quite certain it was a gray whale.

 

These are a few of the riches of Richardson Bay, a marine sanctuary on the northern edge of the San Francisco Bay. I’m going to be here for at least three months, and am looking forward to sharing more with you.

 

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

Double-crested Cormorants in Richardson Bay, SF Bay. Photo: Richard Hinz

 

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The Bearded Bellbird

Bearded Bellbird, calling; Trinidad

Earlier this year we spent five nights in a Trinidad rainforest. While there, we were introduced to the Bearded Bellbird, a unique bird with a booming voice.

 

Named for the beard-like feathers on his throat, Procnias averano occur in a few areas of northern South America. See map below. Only the males have the “beard.”

 

The rainforest path we were on, Trinidad

A frugivorous bird, they feed on fruit and berries. They live high in the canopy, where you rarely see them…but always hear them.

 

The call is unmistakable, and loud, and carries very far. We heard it all day long and sometimes into the early evening:  a loud, staccato croaking that echoes throughout the forest.

 

Males make the call, insistently informing other bellbirds of their territory. The species is polygamous, and during mating season the male attracts the female with an elaborate song and dance. The rest of the year, like when we were there, they just project the croaking calls. Mating season or not, they spend 87% of daylight hours in calling territories within the forest.

 

Also on the trail: Golden Tegu Lizard

Click here for the sound recording, taken in the same rainforest where I was, at Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad.

 

Sometimes the bellbird’s call is incessant, like in this recording. But I never tired of it.

 

There are so many alien sounds in a rainforest, and it is often a surprise when you finally locate the creature. Some of the tiniest frogs can sound like huge, menacing mammals; while an animal that can kick your guts out, like the Australian cassowary, may have no warning call.

 

Agouti, Trinidad, watching us on the trail

Our first day there we were on a guided hike, and the guide took us right to the bird. The Bellbird was perched about 15′ off the ground (4.5 m). A couple of times I flinched from the racket.

 

For as loud and abrupt as the call was, I had imagined a larger bird. He was about the size of a pigeon, but for the volume he was projecting I expected an eagle. He shouted his croak for so long that finally, after everyone in our small group had observed and photographed from all angles, we left.

 

He was such a cool bird that the next day, sans guide, Athena and I went searching for the bellbird again. We went back down the same trail, following the bellowing croaks.

Bearded Bellbird, Trinidad

Everything seems so simple when you have a guide. Without the guide we somehow got off the main trail, lost in a dense forest.

 

Sweaty and bug-bitten, we eventually got back to the main trail, continued the bellbird pursuit for about a half hour. Regardless of how strikingly loud the call was, we could not find the bird anywhere. We have both been birding all over the world for 25 years, doggedly locating silent birds, tiny birds, and camouflaged birds deep in the brush. To not locate the caller of this loud and direct sound was stupefying.

 

But then a more important sound preempted the bird: the lunch bell.

 

So we reluctantly left the unfound bellbird, later learning another incredible feature of this bird: ventriloquism.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Violacious Euphonia, also on the trail

Procnias averano (Beaded Bellbird) range. Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

 

 

 

Aloha Big Island

Place of Refuge aka Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, my favorite place to snorkel

I have visited all the main Hawaiian Islands at least twice, always with a flutter of joy, but the one I fervently return to, my favorite, is the Big Island.

 

It’s not a typical tropical island, with white sand beaches, sand as fine as sugar. It’s paradise in a raw form, with fiery volcano eruptions, and warm Pacific waves meeting porous lava sprawls.

Kalij Pheasant, Big Island

The Big Island, also known as Hawaii Island, is built from five volcanoes, some of which are still active (see map below). It is the largest and youngest island of the chain. At it’s widest point, it is 93 miles (150 km) across.

 

The volcano activity is literally the foundation of this island. Eruptions have changed the shape of the land, sent residents scampering, closed roads, and claimed lives.

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, Place of Refuge, Hawaii

 

So what is it about the Big Island that makes it so glorious?

 

The green sea turtles foraging in the lava rocks.

Green Sea Turtle

 

The vibrant tropical fish and colorful coral.

Yellow tangs, Big Island

Pink coral, Big Island

 

Expansive ocean vistas and endless ways to ride the waves.

Big Island

 

Psychedelic  lava patterns with pooled puddles, crabs, and shorebirds.

Lava beach and sea

Crab, Big Island

 

Sitting beneath the rattling palm fronds, steeping in the magic of the black sand beaches.

Punalu’u Beach

 

Flowers and fragrance and geckos.

Hibiscus

 

Hawaiian gecko on our rental car

 

Adventuring inland and up into the mountains to see the native birds and forests.

Apapane, native Hawaiian bird, Big Island

Nene pair, Hawaiian goose, Hawaii’s (threatened) state bird

Jet birding, binoculars inside jacket, pouring rain

 

Sitting quietly in the parks, watching the colorful birds and Hawaiian families, graced by the gentle fragrance of plumeria.

Myna pair on palm frond

Java Sparrow, Hawaii

Red-crested Cardinal on a coconut

 

Driving across the island on Saddle Road, surrounded by miles and miles of lava fields.

Saddle Road, Big Island. Our rental car, left of center.

 

Hiking in the old volcano craters and lava tubes.

Kilauea Iki Crater with hikers on trail

 

Watching Kilauea Volcano smoke and spew.

Close-up, Halema’uma’u Crater at Kilauea Volcano

 

Relaxing on the lanai and watching the sun set.

 

Thanks for joining me on the Big Island…or as they say in Hawaii, Mahalo.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Five volcanoes of the Big Island. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Kangaroos

Eastern Grey Kangaroo

It is an unusual thing to see a large mammal effortlessly hopping across the countryside.

 

Eastern Grey Kangaroo pair

 

Endemic to Australia, kangaroos live on most of the continent and some surrounding islands, see map below. Called macropods for their family name Macropodidae, there are about 55 species of kangaroos.

 

There are several species of large kangaroos, and they are roughly the size of an adult human, or a little bigger. In addition there are about 50 smaller macropods including wallabies, wallaroos, and tree kangaroos. Wallabies are generally knee-high.

 

Mareeba Rock Wallaby with joey

 

Ancient Kangaroo Rock Art, Kakadu NP

 

Wikipedia overview.

 

While diets vary for each species, all kangaroos are herbivores. They have specialized teeth and chambered stomachs for eating and digesting grass and plants; can endure long periods without drinking, by getting water from their diet.

 

Red-legged Pademelon with joey

 

Like most marsupials, kangaroos are born after a short gestation. The word “marsupial” derives from Latin and Greek for pouch.

 

The size of a lima bean, a newborn kangaroo begins life by crawling from the uterus to the pouch. The hind legs are still stumps, but forelegs are just big enough for the joey (baby) to crawl into the pouch. They live in the pouch, nourishing on the mother’s teats, for months.

 

Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo (rare)

Australia is a large continent, about the same size as the contiguous United States. It is also a land of extreme temperatures, and animal life can be tenuous. When conditions are favorable, kangaroos reproduce rapidly; during droughts they do not give birth, and the population drops.

Agile Wallaby

 

Another kangaroo challenge on this expansive and weather-extreme continent is finding food and water. For this they have evolved with special elastic tendons in their legs, allowing them to travel far distances without expending much energy. They are the only large mammal on earth to hop.

 

The red kangaroo, the largest species, comfortably hops at about 12-16 miles per hour (20-25 km/h). For short distances they can speed up to 43 mph (70 km/h).

Wallaby

 

Mareeba Rock Wallaby at Granite Gorge

 

Eastern Grey Kangaroo mob

 

I witnessed a comical scene with kangaroos once, while birding. There were three of us in a jeep, out in the middle of nowhere, half-hidden behind some brush. A mob (group) of large, grey kangaroos came hopping by and they didn’t know we were there. They were clipping along at a good speed. When they saw us, they stopped immediately, trying to redirect, but they were moving so fast that their momentum had them slipping and sliding in all directions.

 

They hop like a bunny, digest like a cow, and occupy only one continent. Hip hip for the hopper.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

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Image by SnakeByte Studios

 

Oilbirds in Trinidad

Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad, The Veranda

We were going to the Dunston Cave on the grounds of Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad, a tropical island in the southern Caribbean.

 

Our guide, a young man from Trinidad, warned us it would be a tricky hike–people always fell–because of the descent on a slippery slope into the cave. Hang onto the railings, he said.

 

We were embarking on a two-hour hike to see the rare and protected oilbirds. Due to the birds’ aversions to disturbance, no one is allowed into the cave without an escort guide from the Nature Centre.

 

He said when we got close we would hear the birds; they sounded like “someone getting strangled while vomiting.”

 

We spotted wildlife as we went.

Purple Honeycreeper (male), Trinidad

Agouti, Trinidad

Tufted Coquette (hummingbird), male, Asa Wright Nature Centre

 

There were steep hills and narrow trails, thick growth and fragrant whiffs of a thriving, tropical environment. Several times we passed camera traps that record sightings of armadillo, raccoon, and an occasional ocelot.

 

He pointed out a hairy tarantula hidden inside the hand railing, and a white hawk posed for us.

White Hawk, Trinidad

Oilbirds live in just a few places in South America. This site is said to be the most accessible for viewing the oilbirds, hosts a stable breeding colony.  Wikipedia overview. 

 

Steatornis caripensis are the only nocturnal fruit-eating bird in the world. They forage at night, and augment their vision using echolocation,  a technique usually associated only with bats.

Vines outside of Dunston Cave, Trinidad

Their diet is palm and laurel fruit, and this bird is big. The size of a hawk. They measure 16-19 inches long (40-49 cm), and have a wingspan of 37 inches (95 cm).

Dunston Cave stream, Trinidad

The common name “oilbird” comes from days gone by when the chicks were captured and boiled down to make oil. Indigenous people and early settlers used the oil for cooking and lamp-lighting fuel.  Fortunately, those days are over.

 

For the final descent we were surrounded by high rock walls with dense foliage, streaming vines, ferns, and palms. In spite of the slickness, it was enchanting…until we heard them.

Dunston Cave, black crevasse in center. Green railings guided us.

Sounded like wild grunting pigs. In front of us were towering canyon walls with a very narrow, dark crevasse; this was the cave. A shallow stream flowed into it.

 

The birds were screeching, loudly, but we saw no birds. It was completely dark in there. During the day they roost on ledges inside the cave. Though our group was about a dozen, we could only go in three people at a time; no flash photography permitted. They’re very skittish to any disturbance.

Friends in our group navigating their footing, the guide (in green) at Dunston Cave

 

Oilbirds, Dunston Cave, Trinidad

Oilbirds on ledge inside Dunston Cave, Trinidad

There is a whole crew of naturalists who tend to and protect the oilbirds, climbing a precarious ladder, recording nests and nesting activity, and submitting scientific information. Annual oilbird counts have been conducted here since 1969. To date there is a population of 183 birds.

 

We weren’t there long, so as not to disturb them, and soon we turned around and climbed back up. It was hot and the climb was steep, a man in our group fainted, but he was okay.

 

As we emerged from below, I thought about this remarkable bird that survived a history of persecution, perched on the ledge and screeching inside that cave, now healthy and reproducing.

 

But just then the Bearded Bellbird called. We stole off to find yet another avian oddity and delight.

 

All photos: Athena Alexander

Sending our warmest thoughts to the folks of the Caribbean during this furious hurricane season.

Map of Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago, bottom right. Courtesy scuba-diving-smiles.com

 

Owls All Around

Barred Owl, Texas

Everything about owls is remarkable. Large eyes with binocular vision, facial disks around the eyes that funnel sound more acutely, ears that are asymmetric for better sound coverage, feathers structured for silent flight, a neck that can rotate, and powerful talons for skull-crushing.

 

There are over 200 species of owls in the world, living on all continents except Antarctica.

 

They are classified into two different families, Strigidae and Tytonidae,  with about 19 owl species in North America, 42 in Africa, and 13 in Europe. South America, 55; India, 30; Australia, 11. Sources differ in numbers. (Range map below.)

Giant Eagle Owl, aka Verreaux’s Owl; Botswana, Africa

 

 

Great Horned Owlet, California

 

Pearl-spotted Owlet, Zambia, Africa

 

Wikipedia overview on Owls.

 

With hundreds of owl species there are many exceptions, but for the most part, they are nocturnal birds. Carnivorous, preying on rodents, small mammals, and insects, many species can be seen hunting at dawn or dusk.

 

Although all owls have a similar shape, they vary widely in size. I have seen the world’s lightest owl, no bigger than the size of my hand, appropriately called the Elf Owl (in Arizona). They weigh 1.4 ounces (40 g). I’ve also seen the largest owl in Africa, the Giant Eagle Owl, pictured second above. It was 26 inches tall (66 cm).

 

Great Horned Owl, California

 

Barn Owl. Photo: Peter Trimming, British Wildlife Centre. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The most common owl worldwide is the barn owl, in a family of its own, Tytonidae.

 

You can’t hear a thing when an owl flies. Each leading feather is serrated, making the wingbeat silent. The rest of the flight feathers have soft, velvety edges absorbing any other sound during movement. This allows the owl to surprise and capture prey.

 

I’ve been out in the dark looking for owls when one has flown past me and I didn’t even know it.

 

Great Horned Owls, Alaska

 

Although owls are elusive and often camouflaged, it is possible to see them in the wild. I’ve provided two links, below, for locating the owls in your area.

 

I have spent many hours “owling” at night with guides, but have also found many species while hiking without a guide. They’re usually in the woods, you have to look up in the trees and be quiet. Cities with large parks have owls too.

 

A good way to become familiar with the owl species in your area is to visit your local raptor or bird rescue centers, they often rehabilitate injured owls. They may have information, too, where wild owls have been spotted.

 

I once lived near a small natural history museum–Randall Museum–in San Francisco, visited their permanently-injured owls frequently.

 

Great Horned Owl and owlet on nest, California

 

Rufous Owl, Australia

 

Our guide’s gear for owling, in Australia.

 

The subject of much folklore, owls have mystified humans for centuries. They are mesmerizing to watch, magical to hear, and possessing skills like no other bird.

 

When you do see an owl, you don’t forget it.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander, all owls in the wild (except Wikipedia barn owl)

The Owl Pages — owls worldwide. Enter your country in the Search bar.

owling.com — North and Central American owls

 

Mottled Owl, Belize, perched under a palm frond

 

Black and White Owl, Costa Rica

 

Range map of Owls of the World. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

The Rush for Gold

Empire Mine, Grass Valley, California

It was a big day on January 24, 1848 when the first California gold was discovered at a saw mill in Coloma. Let’s take a trip to the “Gold Country,” where dozens of small gold towns still exist in the Sierra Nevada foothills. We’re going to Grass Valley and  Nevada City.

 

That original gold flake brought 300,000 people to California, half by sea, half by land; an unprecedented surge for those days. (That gold flake, by the way, can be viewed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.)

 

Eons before, 400 million years ago, California was at the bottom of a sea, and underwater volcanoes deposited gold and other minerals onto the sea floor. Next, tectonic forces drove the minerals to the earth’s surface. Eventually the minerals eroded and were deposited in gravel alongside rivers.

 

Prospectors at first could sift through riverbed gravel with a shallow pan, finding gold nuggets and flakes.  See map below.

Gold Mine Shaft

After the surface gold had disappeared, mining followed. Gold was extracted from quartz by “hardrock” mining. Men were lowered in buckets into deep shafts to chip and drill through the rock, and later sled-like “slips” and cages were invented for miners to enter the earth.

Empire Mine, circa 1890

The rocks were detonated, and blasted rock was loaded into rail carts, ore cars, and brought up. Extracted ore went to the stamp mill where it was crushed, mixed with water, and processed, then further processed in the refinery.

 

Empire Mine miners on sled-like “slip,” before descending into the mines

Empire Mine, Athena on the same sled-like “slip”

Empire Mine Stamp Mill. Each stamp was mechanically lifted and dropped over 100 times per minute to crush the rock.

The Empire Mine, in Grass Valley, is a State Park with remnants of the mine still open for touring. This complex had 56 shafts extending over 8,000 feet (2,438 m) deep, with 367 miles of excavations. Mining stopped in 1956 when it became too expensive to extract.

Empire Mine Model. Colors indicate gold.

I liked the Mine Model. It looks like a modern model that was built for tourists. But it is actually what engineers and geologists constructed in 1938, as an important working tool.

 

It gives a thorough view of the underground environment, where they could find the gold. All the squiggly colored lines are gold veins. As you can imagine, it was closely guarded and studiously analyzed.

 

Empire Mine quartz, gold in front center

 

The California Gold Rush (1848-1855) was a lucrative time for some folks, and a cruel time for others. Native American Nisenan were forcibly removed and displaced, exposed to disease; miners were exposed to chemicals and disease, their work was devastating to their health; fatal accidents occurred; the earth was ravaged.

 

When I hiked in the area two weeks ago, it was easy to see the quartz veins in the granite boulders, and minerals bleeding through the rocks. I wondered if people still search for gold. I learned that yes, there are still people who pan for gold, but there is no rush like in the old days; basically, for dreamers.

 

Quartz vein in granite: diagonal white line upper center to right

 

All these years later, there are still tectonic forces here, and minerals continue to be important to all living creatures…mining continues around the world. We wouldn’t have mobile phones without minerals.

 

Hirschman’s Pond, Nevada City, California

One day we hiked an area that we learned was on much higher ground in the old days. It had been extensively dug up by two brothers during prospecting days. The hole that they dug was now filled in with a century of rainfall–a scenic, quiet pond with surrounding trails.

 

Ponderosa pines whistled above us in the wind, and a pair of belted kingfishers dipped into the water for fish.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

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California Goldfields. Courtesy Wikipedia.