My Favorite River

Elephants in Chobe River

Our California winter this year has been blessed with abundant rain. As I walked in my neighborhood park last week, I marveled at the numerous rivers and streams.

 

I pondered what my favorite river on earth was, thought about it all week.

 

Rivers traverse all the continents. Over the centuries, cities have been founded on rivers for their power. They support large populations, and carry heavy loads of people and products. Rivers are the basis for the growth of civilization.

 

I have known so many rivers. How could I pick just one? Could you?

 

One favorite at the top of my thoughts: the Chobe River in Botswana. A popular watering place for African game. We watched wild dogs celebrating a kill, elephants crossing, and hundreds of ungulates.

Wild Dogs, Chobe River Nat’l Park, Botswana

 

Chobe River, zebra crossing from Botswana into Namibia

 

Waterbuck, Chobe River, Botswana, Africa

 

Then there is the Zambezi, another favorite. It is immense, and one of its most spectacular features: Victoria Falls.

 

Victoria Falls, Africa

Zambezi River

Zambezi sunset

In Zambia, where the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers converge, we had many lively experiences as we waited for the ferry to cross the river.

Waiting for the ferry at the Zambezi River, Zambia

Zambezi River crossing, Kazungula Ferry

 

And the Luangwa River, a major tributary of the Zambezi, holds the largest concentration of hippos in the world. Native residents share the river with crocodiles and hippos.

 

Hippos and Fishermen, Luangwa River, Zambia

 

 

Folks who fish rivers can read the water like a book.

 

Across the world in South America is the Amazon; we spent a week on the Madre de Dios River, a tributary.

 

It was buggy and humid in Amazonia, almost uninhabitable. I treasured the time we spent cruising this river, for the cool breeze and mosquito relief; and the myriad of wildlife species.

Boarding the boats, Manu, Madre de Dios River

 

Amazon river (near top) and jungle, aerial photo

Red and Green Macaws extracting nutrients from the river wall (photo by B. Page)

I have many favorite rivers elsewhere, too. My home country has so many rich riverways. The Yellowstone River, a tributary of the Missouri, brings frigid waters tumbling down from the Rocky Mountains.

Yellowstone Falls

The Colorado River, the Snake, the Columbia…and many more that I have had the opportunity to behold.

Colorado River, CO

In California, my home state, the Sierra Mountains deliver our highly revered water every day. We talk in winter about the snowpack, and every time officials measure the snow levels it makes all the newspapers, because this is the year’s source of survival. Dozens of rivers transport this liquid gold to us.

Deer Creek, CA; in the Sierra Nevada mountains

Drought and fires haunt us, and we revel when it rains.

 

What about the river of my childhood, the Mississippi? I was born and raised in the Midwest, where the Mississippi is integral. I’ve had decades of adventures on this river’s numerous branches.

 

Horicon Marsh sunset, Wisconsin

 

Could the Mississippi be my favorite?

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Mississippi River basin. Courtesy Wikipedia.

As I continued to ponder the earth’s rivers, I remembered my times on the Rhine, the Danube, the Thames, the Amstel, and more.

Amsterdam bridge

 

Australian rivers, where I saw the rare Papuan Frogmouth (bird) from a motorboat; and my first wild platypus.

Papuan Frogmouth, Daintree River, Australia

Platypus

As I walked in the park beneath the California oak trees, I heard rambunctious acorn woodpeckers conversing, and red-tailed hawks declaring their territories.

 

I love it that every day the river here is different depending on the light, time of day, precipitation.

 

It is here that I finally got the answer I was seeking. For today, my favorite river is this one…

 

…where my feet are planted, where my eyes take in the ever-glinting movement, and my spirit is calmed by the whispering waters.

Northern California neighborhood park

This funny little river, a stream, really. Quiet, perhaps unnoticed by some, it is a wealth of life and bliss.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise indicated.

Male Kudu, Chobe River, Botswana, Africa

 

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Five Minutes with a River Otter

River Otter walking

In January I went to a flooded agricultural field to observe ducks and cranes. At one point there was a curious underwater movement…unidentifiable. We waited, and watched. And a river otter popped out!

River otter swimming in field

 

 

We have been going to this field for three decades, have spent close to 50 hours observing wildlife on this one field. Every winter it is loaded with songbirds, ducks, cranes, raptors, waders, and more…but we have never seen an otter here.

Flooded field with ducks, January 2019. Compare this scene to the photo below from January 2014.

 

We have, however, seen the river otter hunting on a nearby river several times.

River otter with fish. December 2008

 

There are 13 species of otters on earth, and they are all aquatic in nature, feeding primarily on fish and invertebrates. In North America we have the river otter (our focus today) and the sea otter.

 

North American River Otter Wikipedia

 

They are swift in the water, but get around just fine on land too. And its not just rivers they like; they occupy streams, lakes, wetlands and apparently even flooded fields, if they’re wet enough.

 

Carnivorous, river otters not only hunt fish but also a variety of amphibians and invertebrates like frogs, salamanders, clams, mussels, snails, turtles, and crayfish.

 

They have many aquatic characteristics: long, streamlined bodies, short limbs, webbed feet, and more. They can also hold their breath a long time underwater.

 

Coveted for their thick, waterproof fur, both river and sea otters have been heavily hunted by humans for centuries. Their populations declined precipitously in the past, and some species are still in danger.

 

The North America river otter’s conservation status is currently “Least Concern.” Fortunately their population has recovered and can be found inhabiting much of North America. See range map below.

 

If you ever walk along a river and see smooth, narrow mud slides leading into the water, keep your eyes open for a river otter. With short legs and low to the ground, the sleek mammal effortlessly slips into the river.

 

Here is the same field in a drought year. Even with scant water it attracts a lot of migrating and resident winter birds.

Red-winged Blackbirds, Sandhill Cranes, Egrets. Same field, but in January 2014.

For five quiet minutes the otter glided underwater, then came out onto land. Next, the otter scratched its ear with its foot, like a dog. They do this to dry themselves, thereby keeping their fur more insulated. Walked a bit, returned to the water, paddled for awhile, then vanished.

River Otter scratching

Truly one of the day’s biggest thrills.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

I decided I otter include other otters we have observed. These below are the two biggest otters in the world.

 

The sea otter (Enhydra lutris) also lives in North America. We saw this one in the Gulf of Alaska near Seward; and always see them in Monterey and the Bay Area, along the Northern California coast. Popular for photos, playful. They are listed as endangered.

Sea Otter, Alaska

The giant otter, also endangered, is found in South America. We watched three hunting together on an oxbow lake in Peru, not far from the Amazon River. A rare find.

Giant Otter, Peru. Photo by Bill Page.

Giant Otter, Peru. Photo by Bill Page.

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North American River Otter range map, red is river otter range. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

Boats on the San Francisco Bay

Sailing past Alcatraz

Although it is relatively shallow, San Francisco Bay has always been an attractive draw to mariners of the past and present.

Sailboat and Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA

The deepest part of the Bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge,  goes down 372 feet (113 m). San Francisco Bay Wikipedia.

 

Commercial vessels here include container ships, oil tankers, ferries, pilot boats, tugs, and more. Frequent dredging maintains deep channels.

 

Fireboats operate here too.

Fireboat, SF

Privately owned sailboats and yachts are commonly seen.

 

Quieter inlets invite kayakers, windsurfers, and even paddle boarders to navigate the waves.

Paddle Boarders, Richardson Bay, San Francisco Bay

 

Many hardcore San Francisco Giants fans take the Giants Ferry to AT&T Stadium. And the baseball stadium has a special cove, McCovey Cove, where boaters wait for home run “splash hits.”

 

McCovey Cove, San Francisco

 

For people who can’t stomach the perpetual motion, permanently moored vessels are popular. Historic ships host sleep-overs for school groups or families; and many can be independently toured.

 

A few historic ships I have visited at San Francisco’s Hyde St. Pier in Maritime Park include The Eureka, an 1890 steam ferryboat, and The Hercules, a 1907 steam tug. My favorite is The Balclutha, an 1886 square -rigger.

Balclutha, San Francisco Bay

Retired military vessels are also anchored in this Bay, including the USS Hornet, a World War II aircraft carrier; and the USS Potomac, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential yacht.

 

If you’re tired of being on land and are looking for affordable ways to cruise the waters of San Francisco Bay, there are many fun options.

 

Frequent ferries visit the popular Alcatraz Island.

Alcatraz Island

One of my favorite day trips is a round-trip ferry ride to Angel Island, with a hike and a picnic.

Angel Island view, looking out at Alcatraz and SF skyline

 

I also like to go on birding boat charters. Seabirds and sea mammals are abundant in the Bay. A key migratory stop on the Pacific Flyway, San Francisco Bay provides important ecological habitats for hundreds of species.

Gulls and Sailboat, San Francisco Bay, California

 

An elaborate ferry system services commuters in numerous parts of the Bay. These ferries offer a short and sweet boat ride. goldengateferry.org

Ferry boat, The San Francisco, Athena commuting on the top deck

 

San Francisco Embarcadero. Ferry boats center right

 

In December marinas around the Bay are lit with decorated yachts. Parades of lighted boats thrill mariners and landlubbers alike.

Corinthian Yacht Club, Tiburon; Angel Island silhouetted in background

 

Sausalito Boat Parade

 

What is my favorite boat ride so far?

 

I’ve been on many. I love every single boat ride, whether it’s in dense fog and frigid temperatures, or on spectacularly sunny, scenic days. Satiated sea mammals and squawking birds, bracing wind, briny air.

Sea lion relaxing in ecstasy

But my favorite boat ride was last summer, a Fourth of July fireworks cruise.

San Francisco Bay

 

San Francisco Bay

It’s probably not too early to figure how to do that again. No, it’s never too early to plan the next boat adventure on the San Francisco Bay.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

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Bay Area USGS satellite image

(1) Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, (2) Golden Gate Bridge, (3) San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, (4) San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, (5) Dumbarton Bridge, (6) Carquinez Bridge, (7) Benicia-Martinez Bridge, (8) Antioch Bridge. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Wild Cats in Africa

Cheetah, Serengeti

One of the many thrills on an African safari is finding the cats. But like any element of nature, they are not predictable.

Leopards, Zambia

All species in the Felidae family differ somewhat, yet they have similarities as well. Most cats, for example, are solitary and territorial…except the lions who have prides with elaborate social lifestyles.

Serengeti Sunrise, lionness

 

All the felines are carnivores and mainly eat warm-blooded vertebrates. Small cats prey primarily on rodents, birds, and small mammals; while big cats prefer antelopes and other ungulates.

 

But when the opportunity arises, any size cat will hunt and kill whatever it wants.

 

Does this big daddy look like he cares about convention?

Lion

 

Although we often think of the big cats as frightening and formidable, the small cats are also fierce. No creature on the African savannah is soft and cuddly.

 

Wild Cat, Botswana — Ancestor to the Domestic House Cat

 

Cubs were cute, but never to be touched.

 

Lion cubs, Serengeti

 

Felidae Wikipedia

 

Lion at sunset

 

Some cats are nocturnal, others are diurnal. But at mid-day under the ruthless African sun, many of them rest in the shade.

 

Lioness, Ngorongoro Crater, Africa

We always found lions in the morning after they’d had a night of hunting. Often they were nursing cuts or gashes sustained in the night. Usually their bellies were noticeably full, and the cat was sleepy.

 

But we also found them alert and hunting at all times of the day.

 

Lioness, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

 

Lions, like most predators, prey on defenseless baby mammals.  One day we watched with trepidation as a just-born wildebeest calf wandered over to a lioness, thought she was its mother. Wildebeest are not too smart.

 

We watched for 20 minutes as this baby wildebeest pestered the lioness for nursing and care. The lioness, annoyed, repeatedly shirked the baby off.

 

Then eventually the lioness snapped at the wildebeest, chased it, scared it off. But she never once went after it to kill.

 

Lioness and wildebeest calf

 

Leopards, unlike many of the big cats, can usually be found in trees. A cat of great strength, leopards often kill their prey and cache them in trees. With their powerful jaws, they drag the carcass into a tree where they will guard and eat it for a few days.

 

Leopard in tree, Tanzania

But leopards weren’t always in the trees.

Leopard, Okavango Delta, Botswana

 

Cheetahs, the fastest land animal on earth, are usually found in tall grass, stalking.

Cheetahs hunting, Serengeti

They sneak up on their prey, get within sprinting range, and then streak off in dramatic pursuit.

Cheetah with Thompson Gazelle

But one day we came across a pair of cheetahs lazily enjoying the sun on top of this kopje (large rock).

Cheetah on kopje (boulder)

Night game drives often revealed a different world than in the day. But several of what I thought were cats, were not really cats at all.

 

Two cat-like mammals we encountered at night were the genet and civit. They are not, however, in the feline family; they are both in the Viverridae family, more closely related to mongoose.

Large-spotted Genet, Africa

African Civit

 

The cats’ stealth, beauty, and ferocious activities lend excitement to an African safari, but the unpredictability of these wild animals is equally as thrilling. It’s what makes you think at night as you doze off to a distant lion’s roar.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Lion cub with siblings, Botswana

Lioness, Botswana

 

Yellow-billed Magpie

California Oak Woodland

I started birding in the 1990s, and there were always places we could reliably find the yellow-billed magpie. They like the oak trees in California’s Central Valley, and could easily be found in oak woodlands and pastures. As non-migratory birds, they don’t stray far from their communal roosting spots.

 

We have 673 bird species in California. Only two are endemic, i.e. unique to California. This bird is one of the two endemics. It occurs nowhere else in the world. (Island Scrubjay is the other). Range map below.

 

A large bird in the Corvidae  family, Pica nutalli make a splashy appearance with a tail longer than its body, and a bright yellow bill. Their black and white markings exhibit a flashing effect in flight. In addition, when they perch just right in the sunlight, the light changes their black wings to turquoise.

 

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

 

The black-billed magpies, their close relative, have this black-to-turquoise feature, too. We saw a flock in Montana a few years ago.

 

Black-billed Magpie, Montana

Black-billed Magpie, Montana

The magpies are raucous, much like their cousins the crows and jays–squawk a lot. They are easy to spot because of their big size, flashy colors, and vocal presence.  Click here to listen to one. 

 

But then in 2003 a mosquito-transmitted disease, the West Nile Virus, struck the North American corvid family and other bird species too. Humans and horses were also victims. (One percent of humans develop severe symptoms.)

 

Many birds suffered a precipitous decline, especially in the years 2004-2006. The yellow-billed magpie population fell by 49%.

Yellow-billed Magpie. Photo courtesy 10000birds.com

After a few years, some bird species made a comeback, built immunity. But others, including the yellow-billed magpie, continued to decline.

 

For years whenever we were in the Central Valley, we repeatedly returned to the same oaks with hopes of finding our old friends the yellow-billed magpies. But there were none.

 

You can imagine the plethora of scientific studies and surveys that were conducted for this unique, endemic bird. There were heightened efforts to understand and turn around the decline of this rapidly disappearing bird; they still continue today. Their conservation status is listed as Vulnerable, some say it should be Endangered.

 

Last month, while birding in the Central Valley, we did our usual cruising around the oaks looking for the yellow-billed magpies where we formerly saw them. We have been doing this every year,  to no avail, since the early 2000s.

 

And guess what?

 

Three flew into the oak tree just as we were driving by. They only stayed for about five minutes, but it was enough time to slam on the brakes, hop out of the car with all our gear, and go wildly running to the oak trees.

 

It was pure joy to see this rowdy bird again. They flew in as if nothing had ever happened.

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

A showy bird, found only in California, one that can change colors from black to turquoise merely by standing in the sun. Add to their remarkableness, their declining population is making a recovery.

 

That’s an incredible bird. Now let’s just hope they can continue recovery.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

 

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

 

Range Map for Yellow-billed Magpie

Range map for Yellow-billed Magpie. Courtesy allaboutbirds.com

 

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

 

 

Belize Wildlife, Part 1 of 2

Agami Heron

Situated on the eastern coast of Central America, Belize has many geographical features that culminate in a land rich in fauna and flora. Please join me for a two-part wildlife series, visiting this exotic country.

 

We’ll start with the birds of Belize; and in the second part, next week, we’ll look at all the other wildlife.

 

There are 603 different bird species in Belize…that’s a lot for a small country of 8,800 square miles (22,800 sq. km.). The large country of Canada, for perspective, has 686 bird species.

 

Parrots and toucans say “tropical” right from the start.

 

Mealy Parrot

 

Keel-billed Toucan, Belize’s national bird

 

Olive-throated Parakeet

 

Positioned between South and North America, Belize is part of a corridor called the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. This is a natural land bridge between the two continents, crucial for animal migration. It contains 7-10% of the world’s wildlife species.

 

Caribbean Sea from Belize boat

 

In addition, Belize is bordered on the east by the Caribbean Sea, offering a plethora of coastal sea life. The Belize Barrier Reef is approximately 190 miles (300 km) long, and is part of a larger reef system yielding hundreds of species of fish, coral, and invertebrates.

 

Where there are fish, there are fish-hunting birds. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the Belize Barrier Reef is a playground for birdwatching and many other water sports and activities.

 

Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans, and more, Belize

Birds found along coastal Belize include the waders, like herons, as well as pelicans, frigatebirds, shorebirds, and many more.

 

Little Blue Heron

 

Boat-billed Heron

 

Some bird species live in Belize year-round, and others migrate here for the winter. This summer tanager below, for example, spends the winter enjoying Belize’s warm weather and a diet of bees and wasps; then flies north in summer to breed in parts of Central and North America.

 

Summer Tanager, Blue Hole Nat’l Park, Belize

 

The turquoise waters of the Caribbean are not easy to leave behind, but nonetheless we headed westward to the interior of the country, finding a luxuriant terrestrial habitat, well worth the effort.

 

Inland lagoons and rivers attract jabiru, kingfishers, raptors, spoonbills…to name just a few.

 

Jabiru, Belize at Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary

 

Green Kingfisher, Belize

 

Snail Kite

 

Roseate Spoonbill

 

Thirty-seven percent of Belize’s land territory is protected, more than most small countries.

 

Belize Wikipedia

 

Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is a protected wetland, one of my favorite places in Belize. Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is another protected nature reserve on the eastern slopes of the Maya Mountains.

 

Rufous-tailed jacamar, Belize

 

Yellow-throated Euphonia eating a banana, Belize

 

There are also many Mayan ruins in Belize, an additional source of open space and wildlife in jungle environments. Here we saw many species of trogons and songbirds, and bigger woodland birds like oropendulas and guans.

 

Black-headed Trogon, Belize

 

Montezuma Oropendola, Belize

 

Crested Guan

 

Hummingbirds thrive here. Of the 300-350 hummingbird species in the world, Belize hosts an amazing 26 species (there are about a dozen hummingbird species in the U.S.).

 

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird

 

Ascending into the mountains, the habitat and weather change, yielding rare falcon species, hawks, and owls.

 

Orange-breasted Falcon, Belize

 

White Hawk, Belize

 

Mottled Owl, Belize

 

Join me next week in the second half of this two-part series, celebrating all the other delightful wildlife we came across.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander, all taken in Belize.

Black-collared Hawk