Wildlife Visitors

Violet-green swallow, California

These photos reflect a few of the wildlife friends who have come to visit us in the past two weeks, as we continue to adhere to Covid-lockdown orders.

 

Numerous bird species that migrate here to breed join the year-round bird residents — all are breeding and nesting right now. It’s a very exciting time and every day the yard is filled with hundreds of avian friends.

California Quail, male, California’s state bird

We have lived here 19 years, on a rural two-acre property in Northern California, and have spent every day turning it into a wildlife parkland.

 

We were recently thrilled to see a pair of California quail finally return to breed on our property. Their populations perished in the 2017 wildlife fires; this spring they are back for the first time. As ground birds, they have to be very stealthy in their nesting; in a week, maybe two, we will see their chicks…if we are lucky.

 

Black-headed grosbeaks abound at our feeders. We heard the first chick this week. In another month or so, they will fly back to Mexico with their new broods.

Black-headed Grosbeak (male); a highly anticipated spring arrival

 

A pair of house finches just successfully fledged three or four offspring this week.

House Finches (Calif.), male on L, female on R

 

It is only minutes after the birds have found their evening roost that we begin to see a bat or two coming in, swooping up insects. They are barely visible in the dusk landscape,  but I know where to look. They are busy all night long.

 

Our resident bats, the canyon bat, are small–smaller than an adult hand. This photo gives you a rare close-up view.

Canyon Bat, California

 

We see western fence lizards every day, which I love, and the snakes are out and about now too. We don’t see reptiles in the winter, too cold, but are always glad to see them in spring and summer.

 

This big gopher snake greeted us on a morning walk last month, on the road adjacent to our property. We watched quietly for a few minutes, until the tongue and raised head sensed us, and then s/he instantly vanished in the weeds.

Gopher Snake, California

 

Mammals recently recorded on our outdoor camera trap revealed a coyote, skunk, raccoon, bobcat, and gray fox.

Bobcat, California

 

The “critter cam” reveals how busy it gets here at night. The animals forage under the feeders for any leftover seeds, and always drink from the water trays now that the winter rains are over. All photos here have been taken on our property, but not by the critter cam.

 

Gray fox, California

 

During the day, mammals most seen are jackrabbits, gray squirrels, and chipmunks. Lately a newcomer has joined the fray, a brush rabbit.

Brush Rabbit, California

I am happy to report the brush rabbit is fitting in well. It must be roosting on the property somewhere, because it’s here daily now, grazing on the last bits of green grass that have not yet dried up.

 

I learned years ago that we have to make our own space. Thanks for joining me in our Peaceable Kingdom.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Anna’s Hummingbird, male, California

 

Welcoming 2020

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

As we step forward into a fresh new year, and decade, here are some wise words from a few of my wild friends.

 

Greet each day with a smile.

Crocodile, Kakadu Nat’l. Park, Australia

 

Enjoy the search for life’s nectar.

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Belize

 

Wear your true colors …

Yellow Tangs, Big Island, Hawaii

but on crabby days, lay low.

Sally Lightfoot Crab, Galapagos Islands

 

Eat good foods …

House Finch, Gold Dusk Gecko Eating Papaya, Hawaii

and drink plenty of water.

Young African Elephant Drinking Water, Botswana, Africa

 

Share the resources.

Bighorn Sheep and Moose at pond, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado

 

Wildlife, who have to physically work for every bite, like to remind us humans of the importance of movement. They tell us to …

Exercise …

Sable, Botswana, Africa

and stretch.

Leopard, Tanzania, Africa

 

I’ve watched plenty of wildlife simply having fun, especially ravens.

Common Raven, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

Wildlife remind us to:

Hang out with our mates …

Grey-headed Flying Fox colony, Sydney, Australia

and cherish our loved ones.

Baird’s Tapir, juvenile and mother, Belize

 

Try to get along with everyone …

Hippo with heron, Zambia, Luangwa Valley, Africa

but when it’s not possible, take leave.

Humpback Whale, Kenai, Alaska

And because we are granted many days in each new year, there are bound to be some bad days too. The wisdom there is:

When life gives you dung, be a dung beetle.

Dung Beetle, Serengeti, Kenya, Africa

 

It’s good to be industrious …

Leafcutter Ant with leaf spear, Belize

but don’t forget to take time to perch …

Keel-billed Toucan, Belize

and relax.

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

 

Never stop singing …

Dickcissel, Texas

and just keep hopping.

Grey Kangaroos, Australia

 

Wishing you the best in 2020, my friends. Thanks for sharing the sparks of 2019 with me.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Blue Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Kenya, Africa

 

Belize Wildlife, Part 2 of 2

Brown Basalisk Lizard in Belize

In addition to the abundant bird species found in Belize, as featured last week, there is also an impressive array of reptiles, mammals, and insects. Welcome to Part 2 of the Belize Wildlife series.

 

 Part 1 of Belize Wildlife. 

 

Native to Belize, the brown basilisk lizard is known for its ability to “walk on water.” With large hind feet and web-like toes, they fly so quickly across the water’s surface that it produces the illusion of the lizard running on water.

 

A quiet river boat ride revealed this basilisk lizard basking beside the river. Like most lizards, the basilisks have varying colors.

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

The green iguana, which is not always green, was prevalent in many parts of the country. They are the largest lizard in Belize. We came upon this one on the outskirts of Belize City, he was about three feet long (.91 m) without the tail.

Green Iguana, Belize

Deeper into the jungle we were greeted by a troop of Gautemalan black howler monkeys. We had been birding in a Maya ruin, Lamanai, when we found the howlers lazily enjoying figs overhead. They were quiet in this scene, but other times we could hear their eerie, formidable howling from miles away.

 

Click to hear the black howler monkey.

 

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

 

Maya ruin, Lamanai, Mask Temple

An old abandoned sugar mill in this same Maya ruin had been taken over by aggressive vines, supporting numerous varieties of bats, bugs, and birds.

 

Bats, Lamanai

 

 

Montezuma Oropendola on nest, Belize

 

Leafcutter ants, my favorite kind of ant, were also in the rainforest. Columns of ants steadily marched down the trail, each ant carrying a piece of leaf they had chewed and cut.

 

The largest and most complex animal society on earth other than humans, leafcutter ants carry twenty times their body weight, as they dutifully deliver their leaf piece to the communal mound.

 

Leafcutter Ants

 

Where there are ants, there are antbirds.

Dusky Antbird, Belize

 

Life in the rainforest can be brutal. Assassin bugs are known for painful stabbing and lethal saliva.

Assassin bug

 

One dark night after dinner, we found this bad boy on our doorknob. Fortunately it was outside and not inside, and I was wearing a headlamp so I could see not to touch the knob.

 

Belize Scorpion

 

It is the abundance of bugs that attract birds–there were beautiful flycatchers here.

Vermillion Flycatcher, Belize

 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Belize

 

Heading east out of Belize’s rainforests, the traveler eventually finds the dazzling waters of the Caribbean Sea. There’s nothing more calming after jungle mosquitos than a cool sea breeze.

 

Ambergris Caye, Belize

The coast of Belize is comprised of a series of coral reefs, with 450 cayes and seven marine reserves.

Aerial view of Belizean coast

Sea mammals we found snorkeling were southern stingrays and green sea turtles.

Southern Stingray, Belize

Green Sea Turtle, Belize, Ambergris Caye

 

Snorkeling with Southern Stingrays, Belize Barrier Reef

 

While walking the white sand beaches, black spiny-tailed iguanas were a common sight. This frisky pair scuttled up and down a tree trunk.

 

With over 600 species of birds and a plethora of other wildlife, Belize is a tropical menagerie. Thank you for joining me on this two-part adventure.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Northern Jacana

 

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

 

 

Monkeying Around

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

Monkeys  and humans are both primates — I think that’s why humans find monkeys so entertaining to watch. There are 260 species of monkeys currently living in the world, here are a few monkey species I have seen in the wild.

 

Wikipedia Monkey

 

Monkeys are generally divided into two major types: Old World and New World.

 

The Old World monkeys photographed here were seen in different parts of Africa. They are also found in Asia.

Olive Baboon, Tanzania

Baboons are one of the easier Old World monkeys to spot not only because of their larger size, but also because they travel in large troops. There were many instances when the safari vehicle rounded a corner to find a troop of 50 or 100 baboons walking their daily route.

Olive Baboon, Tanzania, Africa

Monkeys grooming one another is a frequent occurrence; it is one of my favorite monkey observations. Known as social grooming, it is done for health benefits as well as relationship bonding.

Savannah Baboons grooming, Botswana

 

Typical of monkeys, the vervet monkeys have extensive hierarchies and elaborate social behavior.

Vervet Monkey, Botswana

Vervets have been known to express 30 different alarm calls. They can readily be observed vocalizing warnings to their peers when a predator is nearby. Vervets take this vocalization to a higher level of intelligence by specifically saying which of their four predators is lurking.

 

Our guides could tell us what predator we were about to see based on the different vocalizations they recognized in the vervet monkeys’ alarm calls.

 

Native to Africa, black-and-white colobus monkeys are strikingly beautiful to see dancing among the treetops.

Colobus Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Africa

Blue monkeys, though they’re not really blue, mostly eat fruit and can be found in Central and East Africa.

Blue Monkey, Lake Manyara, Tanzania, Africa

 

Now let’s head to the Western Hemisphere. New World monkeys, found in Central and South America, include the capuchin and howler monkeys.

 

There are approximately ten different kinds of capuchin monkeys, sporting many different colors. They are considered the most intelligent of the New World monkeys. Energetic and lithe, they have been used as service animals to assist people challenged with spinal injuries.

Brown Capuchin Monkeys, Peru

 

Known for their eerie, howling calls, howler monkeys are considered to be the loudest land animal. It is one of my favorite sounds in the rainforest…except for my first time when I thought I was going to die.

Red Howler Monkeys, Peru

Here’s a You Tube video with a good howler recording. Click here. 

Red howler Monkeys, Manu, Peru. Photo by Bill Page

 

It is an expansive family of interesting beings, our fellow primates, the monkeys.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Blue Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Kenya, Africa

 

Curious George.png

Curious George

 

Wildlife Auto Tours

Great Egret at Sacramento NWR Auto Tour Entrance

In the U.S. we have wildlife auto tours all over the country. They are useful for close-up viewing and photographing of wild birds and mammals, especially in inclement weather. Associated with national wildlife refuges, the routes are one-lane roads traversing the refuge.

 

I have been on auto tours in many parts of the country in every season. We’ll focus here on one of my favorites, the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Auto Tour in California’s Central Valley. This complex covers 10,819 acres (43.78 km2).

American Bittern

Every year in the Central Valley, migrating birds descend from the frigid northern climes. The birds overwinter here, in the Pacific Flyway corridor, from November to February. There are 5 million ducks, geese, and swans that overwinter in California, and 1.5 million shorebirds. It is not uncommon to experience flocks of snow geese numbering in the thousands.  Wikipedia overview. 

 

I have visited the Central Valley every winter for 27 years, and each year I am freshly enchanted by the avian visitors. There are over 300 species of birds and mammals.

Red-tailed Hawk, Sacramento NWR

Flock of White-faced Ibis

The auto tour is self-guided, costs a few dollars to enter. Visitors are allowed to get out of their car only at the designated “Park-and-Stretch” spots, where there is a small parking lot, viewing deck, and bathroom facility.

 

By staying in the car, visitors are essentially driving around in their own viewing “blind.” Birding and photography are done through your car window.

Athena photographing, Sacramento NWR

All the photos here (except one, the sunny one) are from our visit last winter to the Sacramento and nearby Colusa auto tours. It was a very rainy day. You can see how unperturbed even the most skittish creatures were, like the bittern and the brush rabbit.

Brush Rabbit

 

The Sacramento auto tour is six miles (9.6 km) long, and we usually spend about six hours here, averaging one mile per hour.

Loggerhead Shrike preying on a praying mantis

Pintails at Sacramento NWR

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

Winters here are relatively mild, so we don’t get snow; but there is often rain. Some years the rains are so torrential that getting out of the car is like stepping into a tornado. Other years there are mild winters; the sun is shining, all the windows are open and not only can we bird by ear, but there is great visibility.

 

Auto tour passengers include elderly and pre-school ages, and all ages in between. This is great for people who cannot walk far, too. Some people drive through for a pleasant afternoon with the family. Others–geeks like us–are equipped with all the opticals we own, field guides, snacks and meals, and we linger at every turn.

Flock of White-faced Ibis, Colusa NWR

 

Whatever American state you’re in, look up the national wildlife refuge or Fish and Wildlife services for the nearest auto tour.

 

It’s a wonderful way to enjoy wildlife in the worst weather of the year.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

Black-crowned Night Herons, Colusa NWR

Jet (L) and Athena (R), Sacramento NWR

 

Postcards of America

On this Memorial Day weekend, I share with you some of the beauty of America.

Dairy Farm, Mayville, Wisconsin

 

Jackson Lake, Grand Tetons, Wyoming

 

Little Cowboy, Rodeo, Grover, Colorado

 

Cows, Wildflowers, Carrizo Plains, California

 

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC

 

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, Wyoming

 

Joshua Tree National Park, California

 

Pronghorn, Great Basin, Nevada

 

Moose in Aspen Grove, Alaska

 

Mt. Rainier, Washington

 

Black Oystercatcher, California coast

 

Haleakala Crater, Maui, Hawaii

 

Grizzly Bear, Denali National Park, Alaska

 

Dickcissel, Attwater Preserve, Texas

 

Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

 

Texas Longhorn

 

Nene, Kauai, Hawaii

 

Snow geese, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, California

 

Space Needle, Seattle, Washington

 

Lava beach, Honaunau Bay, Big Island, Hawaii

 

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

 

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

Chromatic Pool, Yellowstone, Wyoming

 

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

 

Denali, Alaska

 

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 

Big Horn Sheep, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

 

Anise Swallowtail Caterpillar, California

 

Wood Duck, male, Calif.

 

Roadrunner, California

 

 

Bobcat, Point Reyes, California

 

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

 

Maui, Hawaii

 

Big Sur, California

 

 

Redwood Forest, Humboldt County, California

 

Cypress Swamp, Jesse Jones Park, Houston, Texas

 

Alligator, Sanibel Island, Florida

 

Olympic Peninsula, Washington

 

All photos by Athena Alexander

 

Batty about Bats

Canyon Bat formerly known as Western Pipistrelle, Calif.

Canyon Bat formerly known as Western Pipistrelle–Calif.

If you haven’t seen any bats yet this season–and it’s summer where you live–I am hoping this post gets you outdoors at dusk or dawn, looking for these marvelous creatures that benefit our earth.

 

Bats are not only superb pollinators on our planet, but they also eat so many bugs that they are considered an alternative to pesticides.  There are about 1,000 species of bats in the world; they occupy all continents except Antarctica, and live where it is warm.

 

The most predominate bat at my house is the Canyon Bat, aka the Western Pipistrelle.   The smallest bat in the U.S., it is about 2-3 inches (5-7 cm) long with a wingspan no wider than your hand.  This is a microbat, and it mostly eats insects.  Other bats, like the Flying Foxes in Australia, are bigger; they’re megabats, and generally eat fruit.

 

The best way to see a bat is just when the light of day is leaving or arriving.  At dusk the bats are leaving their roost and going out for a night of feeding.  Vice versa in the morning when they’re returning.  By looking up at the sky, you can best see their silhouette.

 

Canyon Bat in patio umbrella

Canyon Bat in patio umbrella

A rural resident, lately I’ve had more luck with seeing them at dawn, about one morning a week I get lucky.  I watch him or her circle a few times, then disappear into a tiny crack; usually around the house, behind the eaves, sometimes in or around the boulders or trees.  In cities they like bridges and buildings.

 

We have a bat house where there is almost always a bat, and the all-time favorite bat hotel:  inside the folded patio umbrella.   The canyon bat roosts solo, unlike other bats who live in colonies.

 

Fortunately we’re living in a time when the beauty of bats is celebrated.  We can thank Merlin Tuttle for that.  The son of a biology teacher, Merlin started caving at a young age, made his own bat discoveries in the 1950s.  Since then he has studied and followed bats, directed programs, and brought conservation awareness to millions of people.  His incredible bat photography has educated the world.  Read more about Merlin Tuttle here.

 

To learn more about bats, you can start with Merlin Tuttle’s website.  To see a bat in the wild, break up your routine and take a walk outside one day at dawn or dusk…and look to the sky.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Happy with Hippos

Hippopotamus

Hippopotamus

I experienced my first wild hippo at night in the dark.  I was lying on my cot inside the tent; our group was camped beside a river.  I heard a terrifying grunting sound outside, had no idea what it was.  I also heard a great deal of splashing in the water.  Although I hardly slept that night, I did survive; when I asked our guide at breakfast the next morning about the racket, he confirmed that it was a pod of hippos. 

 

Hippopotamus amphibius are found in sub-Saharan Africa, and live primarily in water.  Although they eat on land, they spend most of their time in the water, including mating and birthing.  Water is important to the hippo due to their thin, hairless skin.  To prevent overheating and dehydration, hippos wallow in water or mud for most of their lives.  Their ears, eyes and nostrils are high on their head for easy submersion.  In fact, they can sleep in the water and come up for air without ever waking.   

 

HippoAn aggressive and huge animal, they don’t have many predators.  Male hippos weigh 3,500-4,000 pounds, with older males sometimes reaching 6,000-7,000 pounds.  The only land mammals bigger than hippos are rhinoceros and elephants.  Occasionally crocodiles will snap up a baby hippo, but for the most part, the hippos rule the water.  They are, unfortunately, hunted by humans, their biggest predator, and their conservation status is listed as vulnerable. 

 

With their enormous weight supported on short stubby legs, you might think they are slow and lethargic.  But they’re not.  They are actually quite agile and easily outrun humans at 18 mph. 

 

I’ve been in motorless boats in the water with hippos, wondering if I was in danger.  (This seems to be the way a lot when on safari.)  We often see locals in the rivers fishing beside hippos, too.  There are conflicts, I’ve been told, between humans and hippos.  It’s not like living with rattlers, where if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.  Hippos will bother you.  If they don’t like you, they’ll come after you.  That’s why when I’m in that motorless boat, I try to keep a friendly smile at all times. 

 

Hippopotamus with sausage fruit

Hippopotamus with sausage fruit

Hippos are not especially good swimmers though, their speed is on land.  They come on land to eat, their diet consisting mostly of grass, but also aquatic plants and plant materials like this fruit from the “sausage” tree in Zambia.   

 

I know Americans who collect hippos.  They acquire hippopotamus figurines in all sizes, fill their shelves with cute little hippos.  This strikes me as hilarious, because hippos are so muddy and gargantuan and ill-tempered.  Moreover, if you saw what hippos do with their droppings, this hippo-collecting would strike you as funny too.  For territorial purposes, while defecating and/or urinating, they spin their tail and use it as a paddle and, in windshield wiper-fashion, slap and disperse their excrement in every direction. 

 

I guess my favorite thing about hippopotami are seeing them lazing about in shallow water.  They congregate in groups of a dozen or more, socializing in close proximity, sometimes even resting their head on their neighbor.  They grunt and bellow, splash water, and every few minutes one may turn its burly body over to get the other side wet.  Egrets stand on their backs, lift off when the hippo rolls. 

 

They’re muddy, poopy, aggressive and huge, but somehow I find them soothing…as long as I have a safe distance. 

 

 

The Very Cool Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn Sheep

One of my favorite land-dwelling mammals in the U.S. (besides humans) is the bighorn sheep.   In early June of 2011, I was in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and had the good fortune of close-up viewing in Horseshoe Park.  That year it was still frigid and snowy in the mountain peaks so the sheep were grazing in this meadow at the mountain base.  They are vegetarian and primarily eat grass.  The management at this National Park take their bighorn sheep seriously–rangers that week were directing traffic near the main road so the sheep could graze in peace. 

 

A member of the Bovidae family, wild sheep are primarily found in the western United States and Canada.  Although they were widespread throughout the west 200 years ago, bighorn sheep are now in far fewer numbers.  Like many of the spectacular wild mammals in our country, the bighorn sheep population was nearly obliterated by the early part of the 20th century.  They were over-hunted and also killed by diseases.  Fortunately the sheep were reintroduced and other conservation efforts were successful, rejuvenating the population. 

 

Bighorn sheep and elk

Bighorn sheep and elk

Both genders have those crazy horns, but the rams (males) have more significant curvature.  Older rams’ horns can eventually curve around into a circle!  Besides being a fashion statement, the horns of the rams are important tools for the males’ battles for dominance.  The rams commonly spar and posture and bash each others’ heads during the mating season.  Their brains are protected by bony cores in the horns as well as large sinuses in the skull; but sometimes the rams are seriously, even fatally, hurt by the clashes. 

 

A formidable creature, the males each weigh several hundred pounds and the Rocky Mountain subspecies, shown here, can even reach 500 pounds.  Females are smaller.  Females (also known as ewes) typically have one lamb, which is able to stand, run and climb soon after birth.  This is a good thing because the lambs are easy predation especially to bears, wolves, cougars and others.  The sheep, in their large herds, disappear up the mountain as soon as upper mountain grazing is available to avoid much of the predation. 

 

Big-Horm-Sheep,-ColoradaIf you happen to be in one of the national parks out west, take the time to look around for the wild sheep, ask at the visitor center where you can see them.  I have seen the Dall’s sheep, another wild sheep, in Denali; but at that time they were tiny dots of white way up at the top of the mountains.  Fortunately we had our spotting scope and binoculars and we could admire them even from a distance.  Taking the time to observe and revere the wild mammals of our country is one easy step toward preserving them.