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

 

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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

 

Birds of Belize

Agami Heron in Mangrove Roots

Mealy Parrot

Belize is a small Central American country with mountains, jungles, 450 cays and islands, and the Caribbean reef. This variety of geographical features creates numerous natural habitats, making it a bonanza for birders. See topography map at the end.

 

Located on the Mesoamerican biological corridor, the land bridge between South and North America, Belize boasts 600 bird species. To lend perspective: Belize is roughly the size of Wales or New Jersey, and has nearly as many bird species as all of Canada.

Boat-billed Heron, Belize

More about Belize. 

Aerial view of Belizean coast

At this time of year, many North American travelers head south to escape the winter temperatures. All of the photos here are from February a few years ago. Let’s start on the coast and travel inland.

 

The Caribbean coast on the eastern side offers white sand beaches and turquoise waters. It is the second-longest reef in the world. Here you can enjoy birds, beaches, boat rides, snorkeling, or diving, and let the sun melt your bones. There are shorebirds, ducks, seabirds, waders, and more.

Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans, Ambergris Caye

 

Almost half of Belize is comprised of protected land and marine areas. Traveling westward, we encountered many wild preserves and especially enjoyed Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. 

 

Jabiru

Roseate Spoonbill, Belize

Snail Kite, Belize

We came upon the national bird, the Keel-billed Toucan, and hundreds of species of songbirds and other woodland and jungle birds.

 

Keel-billed Toucan, Belize’s national bird

Black-headed Trogon, Belize

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Belize

Olive-throated Parakeet

 

Advancing into the mountains we found many raptor species, using the ridge thermals.

White Hawk, Belize

Laughing Falcon, Belize

 

The orange-breasted falcon, below, is listed as “near-threatened” on the conservation status list. We spent many hours waiting on Mountain Pine Ridge, hoping to see this rare bird..and were rewarded. Read the post here. 

Orange-breasted Falcon, Belize

And no matter what part of this lush country you visit, there are always hummingbirds quietly tapping into the tropical flora.

Long-billed Hermit

Azure-crowned Hummingbird, adult in the back feeding nestling

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird

 

Add in the terrestrial iguanas, lizards, monkeys and other land mammals; and the reef teeming with sea life, and you have found yourself in paradise.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander–all photos taken in the wild in Belize.

Belize Topography. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

The Glorious Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR

A pair of bald eagles were spending the day at the refuge last week, perfect timing for our visit. A mother and her immature. America’s national bird hasn’t always been visiting the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, nor has the population always been successfully reproducing.

 

Before venturing onto the refuge, I had asked the ranger about the bald eagles recently observed, as I had not seen any notes on the “Sightings” clipboard. She was happy to tell about the bald eagles.

 

“The mother perches on the outskirts, while the immature circles over the water.”

 

Soon after we started the tour, I spotted the mature adult, the mother. Just seeing her perched in this distant tree lifted my heart. The bird was nearing extinction in the 1950s with less than 500 pairs in the lower 48 states; today the population is close to 10,000. Bald eagle statistics. 

Raptor Tree

A flock of swifts were upset by her presence. I’m sure the merlin, with whom the eagle shared the treetop, was no great comfort either.

Merlin, Sacramento NWR

 

It’s an auto tour, the one I wrote about earlier this month. So getting closer to the tree was not possible. But it was the perfect time for tea; I parked and we pulled out the thermos. We waited for her to take off, hoping to catch the impressive six-foot wingspan (1.82 m).

 

About 15 minutes had passed and tea-time was over, and still she had not moved. So we moved on.

 

An hour later we spotted the immature bald eagle circling high over the water, just like the ranger had predicted.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature bald eagles have different coloring than the mature adults–they do not have the white head or white tail, not until their fourth or fifth year. But size-wise, the immature is as large as the adult.

 

All at once we heard the rumble of thousands of snow geese taking off. They were upset by the bald eagle. This sound fills me with awe. It reminds me of an avalanche or a calving glacier. Snow geese are big birds, they weigh about five pounds each (2.26 kg). Imagine three hundred of these heavy birds all lifting at once.

 

The immature bald eagle circled repeatedly, and stirred up the huge flocks of white geese sufficiently. The geese were squawking and honking and taking off, filling the sky, while the cool raptor continued circling, threatening. The eagle didn’t seem intent on hunting, I think he or she was just practicing fierceness.

Snow Geese, Sacramento NWR; they were all on the ground the minute before

The bald eagle’s diet includes fish and waterfowl, also small mammals, small birds, and even carrion. Wikipedia overview.

 

Throughout the day we saw ground squirrels and jackrabbits, and even a ‘possum sleeping in a tree hole. All of these would be tasty meals for the bald eagles.

 

But I was happy to just watch the mammals living through another beautiful day.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Ground Squirrel

 

Jackrabbit

Opossum in tree hole