Geckos and Birds at the Painted Church

There is a humble tourist attraction on Hawaii’s Big Island called the Painted Church. It is one of my favorite Hawaiian spots with its quiet presence and tropical landscape, on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean.


When we visited last month, a house finch and gecko were together in this papaya tree on the church grounds.


This bright and exotic gecko lives on three of the Hawaiian Islands. Gold Dust Day Gecko. 

Gold Dust Day Gecko, Hawaii

This is not a pair you usually see together, but it was easy to see why.

House Finch, Hawaii

The house finch had found a lusciously ripe papaya and had used his strong bill to open the fruit. The gecko was taking advantage of the opened fruit, called in the gang.


Geckos feed on fruit, nectar, and insects, and you can see the smorgasbord they were enjoying that day.


Six Geckos, Hawaii

There are 1,500 species of geckos in the world. This particular species, Phelsuma laticauda laticauda, is diurnal, active during the day. They are native to Northern Madagascar.


Papaya Tree, Hawaii


Many birds came into the papaya trees that day.


Saffron Finch in Papaya Tree, Hawaii

There are always many butterflies and birds visiting the fruit trees and flowering plants at The Painted Church. I have never seen a lot of tourists visit the church–it’s out of the way–and those who do visit go inside the church, stay five minutes, and drive away.


It is so named for the interior that is painted with a unique combination of biblical and Hawaiian themes.

Painted Church interior, Hawaii

The church is more formally named St. Benedict’s Catholic Church, built in 1899. Belgian Catholic missionary Father John Velghe painted the frescoes. They still hold regular Sunday services here.


The adjacent cemetery shows the black lava that is so prevalent on this volcanic island. Every time I visit, it is dancing with butterflies.

Painted Church cemetery, Hawaii. Pacific Ocean on horizon.


This juvenile gecko in the cemetery was the length of my thumb.

Juvenile Gecko, Hawaii

For over a hundred years people and butterflies and birds have been visiting this tranquil spot on the hill. Thousands of people have stood on the lava sidewalk looking out over the Pacific Ocean. I’m glad to be one of them.


Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Yellow-billed Cardinal on Papaya Tree, Hawaii


Lizard Land — Part 1 of 2

Land Iguana, Galapagos Islands


Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

Lizards are one of the most diverse and remarkable creatures on this planet; there are 6,000 species living on all the continents except Antarctica. Here are some of my favorites in this two-part series.


Although most lizards may seem vulnerable as fairly small, soft-sided creatures, they are hearty and flourishing survivors.


It is their antipredator adaptations that have rewarded lizards with success on the planet. Features such as camouflage, self-amputation, venom, and reflex bleeding aid these reptiles in numerous ways.


Camouflage. In the Hawaiian tropics, this gecko surprisingly blends into the lush tropical flowers and greenery. We were lucky to find this one on our rental car where it stood out.


Gold Dust Day Gecko, Hawaii


Here you see the Lobed Chameleon in Serengeti grass…barely noticeable in its camouflaged state. Imagine how many ferocious wild African species could eat this palm-sized chameleon…yet in Tanzania alone there are 100 species of chameleons.

Lobed Chameleon, Serengeti, Africa (in exact center of photo)


The chameleon, like many lizard species, changes color to hide from predators. They also have the ability to extend their long, sticky tongue to snap up insects without having to leave their hiding spot.


This frisky pair of spiny-tailed iguanas would have escaped our notice if they hadn’t been rustling in their chasing.


Spiny-tailed Iguana pair, Belize


We found a frill-necked lizard on every tree in this northern Australia eucalyptus forest. Invisible to us at first, the guide pointed them out.

Frill-necked Lizard, Atherton Tablelands, Australia

In addition to camouflaging, the frill-necked lizards have a unique scare tactic. Named for the ruff of skin around their neck, frill-necked lizards can expand their neck skin like the instant opening of an umbrella. They have bones in the frill that form rods extending their ruff, quickly transforming them to be bigger and more fierce.


This is a good BBC YouTube video of what the frill-necked lizard looks like when defending. 


Self-amputation. Another example of anti-predator adaptation is autotomy or self-amputation. Skinks and small lizards are known for their ability to escape from a predator by this method.


If a predator grabs onto their tail, they sacrifice it by ejecting it, and escape, leaving the predator with only a still-squiggling tail. Miraculously, they grow the tail back. It has been found that lizard DNA is responsible for regeneration, involving 326 genes.


You can see this lizard with its battle scars: a segmented tail, indicative of regrowth.

Green Anole, Costa Rica; segmented tail indicating regeneration


Venom. While most lizards are not harmful, there are a few who produce venom, like the Gila monster, Komodo dragon, and some monitors. Lizard venom has led to ongoing scientific research for medicinal drugs to help with blood clotting, weight loss, and diabetes.


Reflex Bleeding. Horned lizards have an antipredator adaptation called reflex bleeding. At least eight species of this lizard can squirt and aim a stream of blood from the corner of their eyes, shooting it a distance of up to five feet (1.5 m). The blood confuses the predator, and is also foul-tasting to dogs and cats.


Another extraordinary lizard characteristic is thermoregulation. As cold-blooded animals, they rely on the sun for supplying energy to move and function. For this reason, lizards can often be seen basking in the sun.


Marine Iguana colony, Galapagos Islands


Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America


Lastly, lizards vary incredibly in size and shape. This land iguana is one of the largest lizards in the world, weighing up to 25 pounds (11 kg) and measuring 3-5 feet long (0.9-1.5 m).

Land Iguana, Galapagos Islands


In contrast, this full adult gecko, aptly named the dwarf gecko, is half as big as a paperclip.

Dwarf Gecko, Belize


And finally, as an aficionado of wild lizards, I ask that if you ever seek to purchase a lizard for a pet, please be responsible in purchasing only lizards that are bred in captivity and legally bought and sold. Help keep our wild lizards wild.


Solar-generated animals that can change colors, regrow their tail, magically blend into their surroundings, and shoot blood. How incredible is that?


Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild, by Athena Alexander.

See you next Friday for Part 2 of Lizard Land. Thanks for joining me!

Western Fence Lizard, California


Snorkeling with a Lizard

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

There is only one kind of lizard in this world who traverses both land and sea…and you’re lookin’ at it.  This is the loveable face of the marine iguana, Amblyrhynchus cirstatu.  They live only on the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean about 500 miles west of Ecuador. 


Without the need for shelter, shade, or fresh water, marine iguanas live solely by the cycles of the sun and moon.  They rely on the sun to heat their bodies and the moon’s tides to feed their bodies.  Their dark black skin is designed to fully absorb the sun’s rays, so you see large groups of them lying motionless, bunched up together in the chilly early morning light, while they gather heat for their daily adventure.  Living on the equator, the sun soon greets them and heats them, and then they can move.  The sight of dozens and dozens, sometimes hundreds of these 2-4 foot long iguanas basking on the rocks and lava is so surreal it is almost unbelievable. 


 Although the islands are equatorial, the overall climate is not necessarily tropical.  Located at the intersection of three main ocean currents, some of which originate in Antarctica, the islands’ surrounding water is cold.  But it’s nutrient-rich.  After they’ve warmed up, the marine iguanas saunter across the hot, rocky lava, their long reptilian tails dragging behind, and they gather along the shorelines to eat.  Their long spooky claws are handy for clinging to the rocky surface of the lava. 


Marine-Iguan-on-rockWith a diet of primarily marine algae and seaweed, some iguanas advance beyond the shore and into the water’s depths.  The bigger bodied iguanas, like the males, hurl themselves into the water to eat seaweed on the ocean floor and shallow reefs.  There is a risk to entering the cold water, for their body temperatures drop fairly quickly rendering them dangerously immobile if they get too cold.  Therefore, they’re only in the water for 5 or 10 minutes.  The smaller-bodied females and the young stay on land for this reason. 


The islands are so far off into the ocean that most of the animal inhabitants are unaccustomed to predators.  This is what makes the Galapagos a place of strange sights and unusual experiences.  You can get fairly close to these animals because they don’t know the danger of man.  But getting close to a marine iguana is not a cozy experience.  When they feed, they take in salty sea water; and special glands in their nostrils filter out the salt.  The result is water shooting out their nostrils.  Not the most charming creatures on this planet. 


Marine-Iguana,-GalapagosMarine iguanas don’t all look the same.  Some have algae on their short snouts, some have white crystallized sea salt that has accumulated there.  Sometimes their bodies temporarily shorten if there is a food hardship (like during El Nino weather patterns).  Also, during breeding season and in conjunction with a red pigment in seaweed that blooms in summer, some of the iguanas are bright red and green. 


Fortunately, marine iguanas are a protected species.  There are a few natural predators like hawks and owls that prey on the young.  More troublesome, however, is the growing population of feral cats and dogs.  Oil spills polluting their water can also be a problem.  At present their conservation status is rated as vulnerable.  Estimates of the total population vary and fluctuate, but the count seems to be about 200,000 to 300,000.  Marine-Iguana-in-Galapagos


One of my fondest memories in the Galapagos—and I have many—is the day we happened to snorkel with marine iguanas.  The water was cold and we were in shallow water, rocked about by the forceful waves, looking for fish.  At the ocean floor a few feet away we spotted one, then another marine iguana underwater with us.  I stared at that crazy sight as long as I could:  a large lizard completely submerged underwater, grazing away on the algae.  I knew I might never again be eye-to-eye with a lizard underwater…and I was right. 


Ant Antics

This week we had an emergence of nuptial ants.  Most people don’t know what that is and I didn’t either until I saw it happening in my driveway one day years ago.  Since that day, when I see it happening I stop whatever I am doing and watch in admiration.  I give them a little wish, too, for a successful and productive colony. 

But if you could see it happening for yourself, you might not be so calm.  It is rather startling, especially if you have never seen it before.  Little winged insects come spewing out of the ground, like silent fireworks; hundreds of flying bugs scattering in every possible direction, relentlessly shooting out from somewhere.  At first you don’t know what they are because the air is suddenly so filled with this cloud that all you want to do is take cover.  If you happen to be standing nearby, say, talking on the phone, all of a sudden your hair and nostrils and ears are filled with these fluttery creatures.  You scream into the phone, “I’m being attacked.  I’ll call you back.  If I live.”  Then you run out of the cloud and wait, still swatting at the air and vigorously shaking your head like a dog. 

At our house we’ve seen it so many times, now, that we no longer run for cover.  In fact this week when it happened I noticed we simply covered our lemonade glasses with a napkin to keep the little critters out of our drinks.  If you are not standing right in the middle of the cloud when the emergence erupts, it’s not so traumatic; it’s another fascinating event in the outdoor world. 

What is this crazy emergence?  It is mating time for ants and they are emerging from their parent colony to form a new colony.  The weather conditions dictate when it will happen, usually after a rain that has softened the earth, but not during a rain when their flight is hampered.  Although you do not necessarily see what is happening, for most species it is the virgin queens and males emerging from a hole in the earth.  Once airborne, the queens mate with several of the males and are impregnated (thus the term “nuptial”).  If successful, the queen then lands, loses her wings, and submerges back into the earth to build the new colony.  The males live such a short time thereafter that not only do they never eat, but they never even develop jaws for eating. 

Not all ants have this exact sequence.  And it’s different in different locales.  In some locations this happens so universally on one or two days that they actually call it “Flying Ant Day.”  But here in the moderate climes of northern California we get it several times in a day, sometimes several times in a week, and in both shoulder seasons of spring and fall.  We watched two separate emergences last Saturday, a very mild spring day in April; but we have also observed it happening on a mild October day. These ants are harvester ants.

WesternFenceLizard-NuptialAThere is almost always some opportunistic creature enjoying the emergence.  The western fence lizard pictured here is on our 25 foot rock wall.  When the emergence began, the spray of ants was in the shade.  The lizard just sat there and we wondered why he was not participating in lizard paradise.  But he’s a cold-blooded reptile early in the morning, and probably couldn’t leave his rejuvenating warming station in the sun until he could get his little limbs working.  Seemed a shame that he was so close to nirvana but unable to engage.  Then moments later, we discovered that he had worked it out perfectly.  He had moved to a strategically sunny spot where there was an endless supply of fresh, juicy ants practically flying right onto his sticky tongue. 

Yellow-rumped-WarblerHours later and over 300 feet away, we saw a different emergence.  It was easy to see because it was a yellow-rumped warbler, pictured here in his breeding plumage, who was the lucky recipient.  His erratic hawking flight was quite a spectacle.  He would perch in a Manzanita bush close to the ground (already a risk due to ground predators), then shoot off the branch, effortlessly flip upside down, grab the flying ant in mid-air, and return to the branch for his feast.  He did this every few seconds for a quarter of an hour, then rested high up in a nearby oak. 

The world of ants is extremely complex.  Their successful social structure is baffling to us humans, we who have not yet figured out how to all get along.  Entomologists and myrmecologists (those who study ants) have been fascinated by these beings for centuries.  With over 14,000 ant species and subspecies, there is a lot to study, and still many questions to be answered.  There are also many earth citizens like myself who have become fascinated with ant antics. 

In the spring there is a lot more activity in the waking outdoors.  If you water an area you haven’t watered in a while, for example, you might see ants going crazy, moving little white dots.  That’s their eggs.  They’re relocating with your emergence.

Iguana Snuggle

Once again I was dazzled by iguanas.  On our recent trip to Belize we had the joy of seeing two species of iguanas and many smaller lizards and anoles as well. On the Caribbean side of Belize are a series of small islands; we were on Ambergris Caye where the main mode of transportation for locals and tourists alike are golf carts. Our first sighting of the spiny-tailed iguana was when a male shot across the road in front of our golf cart and nearly got flattened. We were thrilled with that flash of color and the excitement, and had our eyes peeled from then on, observing several dozen including a pair in a shuffled mating dance.

But it was on the mainland of the country when we saw the bigger green iguana that our reverence heightened. Our guide was driving around the outskirts of Belize City. We were “killing” a little time while waiting for the rest of our tour group to arrive at the airport, looking for birds. He had known us for less than an hour and knew us only as birders. He did not know, that is, that we were enamored of iguanas.

He turned right at a quiet T intersection and casually said, “There’s a green iguana back there.”  Continuing his turn, driving away from the iguana, we looked and looked all over the ground and finally said, “Where?”  I added anxiously, “We’d really love to see it.”  In a residential section with old, cinder block houses mixed with a development of new and primarily unfinished houses, was a tree-lined creek. There were few cars or people in sight so he accommodatingly turned the small bus around, pulled over, and pointed.

What he had seen was an iguana as far as 300 yards away, camouflaged and hidden in the leaves of a tree about 20 feet off the ground. We never would have seen this lovely creature even with our binoculars and birding skills, without the help of the guide. And oh, was he gorgeous.

Green Iguana

Green Iguana

Fortunately the sun was directly on him, so not only did we see him fairly quickly once pointed out, but the bright orange and gold colors of this large, green male in the prime of his life were striking. You can see from this photo the spikes on his nape. The spikes went all the way down the length of his long, leathery spine. He was about four or five feet long. Also in this photo is a good view of what is called his dewlap, that patch of loose skin at his throat. It is deflated here, but when they are threatened it balloons out. Although he was aware of our presence, he was unthreatened. We were respectfully quiet, unassuming, and stayed at a distance of about 100 feet away. In this basking pose, he is absorbing the heat of the morning sun, which helps him to digest all the leaves he has just eaten.

As a birder I am accustomed to getting a very brief 3-5 second look at a bird before they flit off to the next bug or perch. I think one of the things I secretly like about iguanas is that they stay longer on a perch, and although they can indeed move quickly (like that spiny-tailed iguana that just missed the tires of our golf cart), they are also known to move lethargically. If they don’t have enough heat, in fact, they can’t move at all. So we oogled this majestic creature for a languid 5 or 8 minutes, listened appreciatively to our guide’s whispered discussion of the iguana, took photos and marveled, and then eventually, with some reluctance, moved on.