The Beat of Summer

Black-headed Grosbeak (male)

Although today is officially the first day of summer, this whole month leading up to it has been a wild, thriving bonanza in Northern California. By 5:30 dawn is underway and the cacophony of birdsong has already begun.

 

Slightly inland, temperatures usually range in the Fahrenheit 90s  (32-37 C.), with an occasional day of cooling, coastal fog.

 

The hot temperatures and dry chaparral habitat bring out the Western fence lizards, skinks, and snakes. This year we have had the pleasure of many lizards and skinks.

 

Skink, California

 

One day a confused lizard somehow got into the house. I came in and found it trying to climb our living room steps; fortunately the carpet was impeding progress. I coaxed the lizard, an alligator lizard, into a clean milk bottle and delivered him back outdoors.

 

Northern Alligator Lizard, California

 

The birds take advantage of these long days. Many species have chicks in the nest, and industriously use the maximum daylight hours to snap up insects and worms for their nestlings.

 

Some birds are finishing their nesting like the titmice, violet-green swallows, and western bluebirds. Others, like the Pacific-slope flycatchers, are already feeding a second brood before they head back south.

 

Oak Titmouse, California

 

Violet-green swallow, California

 

Juvenile Anna’s hummingbirds have been off the nest for about a month now, and are easy to spot because they zoom up to everything with defiant purpose, even if it’s inanimate like my cup of tea. Adults don’t waste their energy like that, they have to be alert and vigilant to defend their territory.

 

Anna’s hummingbird (adult male), California. Can you see his tongue?

 

Steller’s jays, a handsome and irreverent bird, also have juveniles right now and not a day goes by without at least one squawk-fest. I watch them. They squawk about nothing. I think they’re learning to voice.

 

Steller’s Jay, adult, California

 

The yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) plants have unfurled thousands of tiny white flowers these past few weeks.  I’ve read that the nectar tastes bitter, but the shrubs are loaded with butterflies, sometimes six or eight at once–all sizes and colors.

 

Western Tiger Swallowtail on Yerba Santa

 

Bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax), also a native, is more prolific this year than any other year in my 18 here.  Every single plant burned to the ground in the 2017 wildfires; but since then we cleaned up the blackened stubs, and after a rain they earnestly began sprouting leaves. With fire-resistant rhizomes, they grew a full grassy bouquet, and recently each plant extended a tall green stem with one club-like flower.

 

Bear Grass, California, June 2019

 

Four species of flycatchers, the blue-gray gnatcatchers and black-throated gray warblers are all here for the summer, calling from the trees reminding me the lively summer has arrived.

 

Residents like the finches, nuthatches, woodpeckers, wrens, vireos and raptors are also busy nesting. Juncos built a nest under our front steps. This week I observed a flicker nesting in a tree snag.

 

But it’s the black-headed grosbeaks who steal the show. Big bird with bold colors, a flash of white in flight; and the most heavenly melodious song reverberating throughout the day.

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

 

Pheucticus melanocephalus are here only a short time. The males arrive in April, the females follow, and the spring activities begin. Right now we have immature and adult grosbeaks flying in every direction, sometimes five or six at the feeder at once. By August they’ll be gone.

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (female), California

 

We keep the feeders filled with their favorite seed (black oil sunflower); and the water trays are brimming with refreshment for the hot, parched days.

 

So many goals I have, but none so easy to know or do as keeping the grosbeaks happy.

 

At dinnertime the jackrabbit comes in to feed on grass and weeds; and the immature grosbeaks continue their plea that has lasted all day: a wavy whine, feed me, feed me.

 

Black-tailed Jackrabbit, California (Lepus californicus)

 

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (immature), California

 

It’s not until 9:00 that the sun sets and the day quiets down…only for the night creatures to begin their watch. First the bats come out, frenetic silhouettes disappearing into the night. The frogs start their chorus, the crickets their stridulating chirping; and by the time it’s totally dark, the occasional deep hoots of a great horned owl lull me to sleep.

 

The force of life, the beat of summer. Happy summer to my northern hemispheric friends.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Pacific Chorus Frog, California

 

Range Map for Black-headed Grosbeak

Range map for black-headed grosbeak. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org.

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Two Night Drives

Black and White Owl, Belize

It was the same territory we had traversed every day in this Belizean rainforest, but a very different world opened up once the jungle night unfolded.

 

Night drives involve a vehicle with a strong spotlight hooked up to the battery, and one or two guides who drive and spot. Athena and I stood in the back of a pick-up truck–hanging on, dodging palm fronds, and swatting at mosquitoes.

 

Baird’s Tapir, adult female, Belize

Tapirs were a great find, and one of our favorite adventures of the whole trip. More about that: Tapir Time.

 

But we came upon so many other creatures too.

 

Mottled Owl, Belize

 

Owls and bats are a big draw on night drives, and the Belizean forest did not disappoint. I’m always happy to see bats because it means there is a balance in the ecosystem. We saw about 20 individual bats on our two night drives. The lights on the vehicle brought them in, for the insects, then they’d spin away into the black oblivion.

 

We spotted this spectacled owl with a snake. When we drove off, we watched the owl carry the Fer-de-lance snake, highly venemous, back to a palm tree where we suspected there was a nest.

 

Spectacled Owl with Fer-de-lance snake

 

Owls and bats are not the only nocturnal flyers. There were also common pauraques and northern potoos, bird species in the nightjar family (Caprimulgiformes).

 

Pauraques were especially prevalent in this rainforest. When they aren’t flying, they are on the ground, camouflaged in leaf litter; this parent was hiding a little one.

 

Common Parauque adult sitting on top of chick

 

They feed on insects, and were attracted to the constant bug flurry around the lodge’s landscape lights. I heard them every night, so loud that sometimes they woke me up.

 

Sound of pauraque in night forest. 

 

At one point, the driver spotted a wild cat called a margay. We had a two-second look at it before he or she disappeared into the forest. Camouflage spots, quick and stealthy…gone in a flash.

 

Margay. Photo: Brian Gratwicke, courtesy Wikipedia.

They are small, the size of an ocelot, native to Belize, and nocturnal. Their populations are declining, so we were happy to see this rare wild cat.

 

There were large moths and small; beady eyes looking out of the tangled trees; lots of croaking frogs. We came upon a raccoon who was hunting high in a tree; and deer in their nighttime mode, frozen in place by the spotlight. This mammal emerged out of the shadows and it took a few seconds to see it was a tapir.

 

Tapir (center) coming out of the jungle shadows

 

Every day we saw cattle in a pasture on the edge of the forest. At dawn we were there chasing parrots and toucans, while the cattle unabashedly stared at us. When we came back at night, their shining eyes were still staring at us.

 

Cattle in pasture

 

One night we were walking on the lodge grounds when we heard a plop, and found this cane toad, a native.

 

Cane toad, Rhinella marina

 

It’s cooler at night, and the moving vehicle creates a wind that feels luxurious after a long, sweaty day. But the best part of the night drives is seeing this mysterious nocturnal world come alive.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander except margay.

Baird’s Tapir, juvenile and mother, Belize

 

 

Parade of Leafcutter Ants

2013

Leafcutter Ants, Belize

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Leafcutter Ant carrying leaf spear

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

 

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

 

Leafcutter Ants Wikipedia

 

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

 

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

 

Lodge Pool, Belize

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Leafcutter Ant disoriented by water spot

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

Rock exit, between second and third rocks

 

Ant with leaf exiting, in shadow of rock on right

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

 

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

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Leafcutter Ants, Costa Rica

 

Long-tailed Birds

Resplendent Quetzal (male), Costa Rica

 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher (male), Belize

Every once in a while I come across a bird with a spectacularly long tail. It happened last month with this Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Belize. When the bird flies, his long tail ripples gracefully in the wind.

 

One day long ago, while I was still in birding classes, I was standing in my mother’s backyard, a suburb near Dallas not far from fields. I looked up and saw a beautiful bird on the telephone lines with the longest tail I had ever seen in my life. Later I was to learn it was the scissor-tailed flycatcher, not uncommon in Texas.

 

And since then, I have had the pleasure of collecting many beautiful images of birds with lengthy tails.

 

We were flying down a Mexican highway in a cab one day, when we spotted this jay on the lines. Screeched to a halt.

 

Black-throated Magpie Jay (male), Mexico

 

In some long-tailed bird species, only the male has the long tail; in other species, like motmots, both genders have the long tail.

 

There are numerous evolution theories as to why a species has a long tail. Most theories posit that the male’s long tail is a signal to the female of good breeding foundation.

 

Some species have cord-like streamers, whereas others, like my favorite the resplendent quetzal, have more of a double ribbon for a tail.

 

Motmots, a colorful Neotropic bird, have long tails shaped like racquets.

 

Turquoise-browed Motmot, Costa Rica

 

This hummingbird has a racquet-tail too.

Booted Racket-tail Hummingbird (male), Peru

 

One of the most striking birds on the planet, the resplendent quetzal male has a long tail that sparkles in the sunlight. For an hour we watched this male in a Costa Rican mountain rainforest eating avocadoes. Then when he was satiated, he flew on.

 

We instinctively ran after him, enchanted by the magic, the beauty.

 

Undulating behind this showy bird, the iridescent tail shimmered and flowed in the most natural ribbon-like spectacle. Eventually the bird disappeared into the forest.

 

Resplendent Quetzal (male), Costa Rica

 

In the red-billed tropicbird, the male’s tail streamer is slightly longer than the female’s, about 4.7 inches (12 cm).

 

We once went to a breeding colony of tropicbirds on the island of Little Tobago in the West Indies. The tropicbirds were competing with frigatebirds over food, and the guide told us that sometimes a frigatebird would pluck at a tropicbird’s long streamers, try to pull it out.

 

Red-billed Tropicbird, Little Tobago Island, West Indies

 

Birds that wear party streamers for tails:  they make you want to sing and dance and go a little wild.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Indian Peacock in Texas

 

Spring Wildlife Rituals

Jackrabbit

Northern California is now about a month or two into spring. The hillsides are emerald, wildflowers abound. Almost every summer migrant bird species has arrived; and all the animals have begun their spring rituals.

Wild Douglas iris, California

Violet-green swallows, black-headed grosbeaks, and Pacific-slope flycatchers have arrived from Mexico and Central America. They will breed here, then leave in autumn, hopefully with a new brood.

 

Violet-green Swallow, male, California

 

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

 

Pacific-slope flycatcher adult singing of life

Additional bird species have also arrived, in their usual order, some earlier in spring, some later. Flycatchers, tanagers, warblers, gnatcatchers, and more.

 

The violet-green swallows, oak titmice, and western bluebirds always vie for the nest boxes. Our human spring ritual is to clean out the boxes; their avian spring ritual is to squabble over them. It makes no difference how many boxes we offer, the territory battles somehow have to occur.

 

They cling to their real estate amidst a swirl of swooping competitors, and eventually it all gets settled out.

Violet-green swallow on nest box, California

 

Western Bluebird on nest box, California

 

A few of the reptiles are starting to show their faces. They come out of hibernation on warm days: look around, absorb the sun, do their dances, then return to their burrows when the evening starts it’s chill.

 

This week I saw about five western fence lizards

Western Fence Lizard, California

and at least ten skinks.

Skink, California

 

Twice we found snake tracks in powdery dirt, but no snake. It looked like a wooden pencil was dragged through the dirt. The snakes will linger longer when the earth has warmed up more, rattle at us if we unknowingly get too close.

 

This is a rattlesnake in our front yard from a previous summer; they keep our rodent population under control. That’s a big one.

Western Rattlesnake, sub-species Northern Pacific; Calif. Rattle (white) at far right end of tail, 6-8 rattles.

 

Then there are the frogs, Pacific chorus frogs. For the last three months they have been in full symphonic mode at night, singing at the neighbor’s pond, each male singing loudly–the louder the better–to attract a mate.

 

They require water for laying eggs, so the mating rituals begin at the pond’s edge, with the male filling up his throat with air, then croaking and crooning.

 

Starting in late January, through February and March, I sat in the dark living room with the window open, listening appreciatively, for as long as I could stand the frigidity. The sound came in thick waves, swelling, and swelling more.

 

Now there’s warm air coming through the night window, and the cacophony has dwindled, signaling that most mating has occurred.

 

Meanwhile, the female lays 400-750 eggs. They are jelly-like beads, in clumps that stick to the reeds and twigs. The frogs have to lay so many because it is tasty caviar to most other wildlife.

 

Soon the tadpoles will sprout little legs and gradually their entire bodies will transform from water-swimming pollywogs to land-hopping frogs.

Tadpole on a leaf…

Tadpole with frog legs

then frog.

Pacific Chorus Frog, California

The adult frog is very small, about two inches long (5 cm). They keep our spiders and insects in check.

 

Warm days, growing longer. New life abounds in many different forms…reminding us that miracles are everywhere.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) and Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly, Angel Island, CA

 

Earth Day Hero: Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson. Photo from Rachel Carson The Writer at Work by Paul Brooks.

 

Pair of Brown Pelicans, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, FL

Rachel Carson changed the world when her book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962. At the time of writing, agriculture was accelerating to new heights with the advancement of synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, and pesticides.

 

The pesticide DDT had been heralded during WWII for controlling malaria, typhus, body lice, and bubonic plague; Paul Herman Muller had been awarded a Nobel prize for it.

 

From the 1950s on, DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane) was used extensively–40,000 tons a year, worldwide. Especially effective in eliminating mosquitoes, it was liberally sprayed from airplanes and trucks, on crops and neighborhoods.

 

Insect-borne diseases, they said, would be a thing of the past.

Mosquito control, Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, 1945. The sign says “DDT, Powerful Insecticide, Harmless to Humans.” Bettmann/Corbis

 

As a child in the 1960s, I clearly remember the excitement of the “spray truck” when it regularly came down our street in Wisconsin every summer. We lived near a marsh and mosquitoes were rampant.

 

All the little kids, including me, would go running out of their homes chasing after the spray truck, as if it was an ice cream truck.

 

We would run with delight into the billowing clouds of DDT.

 

Image result for spray truck mosquitoes 1960s


DDT truck, 1960s, from pininterest.com

This is difficult to imagine now, all these decades later; but is a good indication of the level of ignorance then toward chemicals, pesticides, and insecticides.

Osprey, Ding Darling NWR, FL

While many scientists and industrial chemical companies were earnestly manufacturing dozens of new chemical cocktails, Rachel Carson, along with other scientists in the minority, began addressing the potential dangers of these unknown concoctions.

 

In the book she described how chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphorus insecticides, like DDT, altered cellular structure in living beings.

 

The powerful chemical industry spent a quarter million dollars to discredit her research and malign her character. Still, she continued to present her scientific findings and medical interviews, citing numerous cases of human illnesses and fatalities from DDT and its derivatives. Tumors in laboratory rats.

Double-crested Cormorant, Las Gallinas Ponds, CA

American Robin, CA

 

The publication of the book stirred the nation.

 

The title, Silent Spring, predicted the silencing of birds and wildlife under this insidious chemical barrage. Communities organized grassroots efforts demanding the discontinuance of the aerial spraying in their neighborhoods. Then-president John F. Kennedy responded to the book by launching federal and state investigations.

 

During this period, the bald eagle population, America’s symbol of strength and freedom, was rapidly declining. Other birds were also affected: pelicans, peregrine falcons, and more.

Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR, California

All the bird species shown in these photos had populations that were dwindling or troubled due to DDT and its derivatives. The residue was in the land and water, contaminating insects, fish, worms, prey. Calcium metabolism was interrupted by DDT, eggs were too thin to reproduce subsequent generations.

 

Rachel Carson’s prediction of a silent spring was manifesting.

American White Pelican flock cooperative feeding, Las Gallinas Ponds, CA

 

Peregrine Falcon, CA

 

Western Gull, Bodega Bay, CA

 

After a decade of much controversy, DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972. Many other countries, like Canada and across Europe, discontinued its use, too.

 

During the writing of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer; then it metastasized. She managed to complete and publish the book, and motivate the country and the world into grasping the dangers arising from improper pesticide use and the need for better pesticide controls.

 

She died of breast cancer a year after this photo was taken, at the age of 56.

Rachel Carson at a Senate subcommittee hearing on pesticides in 1963. Credit United Press International courtesy New York Times.

Rachel Carson at a Senate subcommittee hearing on pesticides in 1963. Credit. United Press International courtesy New York Times

 

The story of DDT does not end here. But for today, let’s give Rachel Carson a bow for all the people and animals who survive, thanks to her.

 

Another of the many Earth Day heroes we can salute for their attentiveness, tenacity, and soulful work in making the earth a safer, sweeter place.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Bird photos by Athena Alexander.

 

American White Pelican, Las Gallinas, CA

 

Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs

Old Faithful, Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park and the area around it, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, is a geothermal system like nowhere else in the world. Situated primarily in the state of Wyoming, this 2.2-million acre expanse is a roiling hotspot.

 

It has at least 10,000 geothermal features. Geysers are the most commonly known geothermal form, like Old Faithful, but there are several different kinds.

 

Travertine Terraces, Mammoth

On the northernmost  border of Yellowstone is Mammoth Hot Springs. Different from erupting geysers, Mammmoth stands out for its travertine terraces.

 

These terraces were formed from hot springs and carbonate deposits over thousands of years.

Terraces and steamy hot springs

 

Beneath the earth, thermal water from the hot springs travels via a fault line that runs through limestone. The water interacts with hot gases and forms a hot, acidic solution; the limestone dissolves into calcium carbonate.

 

Once this water reaches earth’s surface, carbon dioxide is released and the acidic solution forms a mineral called travertine, a chalky white substance.

 

Travertine Terrace

 

The terraces are ever-changing. Over two tons of the acidic solution are deposited here every day.

 

The different colors are a result of algae and bacteria.

 

There are boardwalk paths for visitors to observe the travertine terraces. Between the upper and lower terrace boardwalks are approximately 50 hot springs.

 

Live webcam: Travertine Terraces at Yellowstone

 

Mammoth Hot Springs

 

On the lower flats are the village, slightly left of center in the above photograph; a hotel and cabins, basic park services, Albright Visitor Center.

 

Located about a 1.5 hour’s drive north from the popular spots of the park, like Old Faithful, Mammoth is an isolated and lesser-known area of the park, close to the Montana border. Maps below.

 

Mound Terrace

 

In addition to the terraces, there are also a few formations, like Orange Spring Mound which occurred from a slow water flow and mineral deposits.

 

Orange Spring Mound

 

Inhabitants of the valley include elk, often seen grazing.

 

Elk herd

 

Fort Yellowstone is also here. It was once an Army fort created for establishing order in America’s first national park; the birthplace of the U.S. National Park Service.

 

Mammoth Village

 

In Yellowstone’s fiery and magma-driven corner of the world, Mammoth Hot Springs is a unique landscape well worth exploring.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

More info: Geothermal Areas of Yellowstone.

 

 

 

Map showing location of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone.

Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone. Courtesy yellowstonepark.com