Earth Creatures

With Earth Day coming next week, let’s take a fun look at animals who live not on top of the earth…but inside it.

Mammals, reptiles, insects and many more creatures dig this earth.

Mammals. Many mammals live underground to give birth and raise their young.

Bears come first to mind, as the largest hibernators on our planet. They live roughly half their lives inside their dens.

Badgers, rabbits and foxes occupy dens too.

Many smaller mammals, like this mongoose below, live in burrows. Burrows, like dens, provide protection from predators as well as temperature extremes.

Warthogs, mammals in the pig family, do not have fur and use their burrows to stay warm, give birth and raise their young. They use their ivory tusks to dig for tubers, leaving the burrow-digging to other animals, usually using old aardvark burrows.

In Africa, guides warn you not to stand in front of any holes because it could be a warthog burrow; and those small but ferocious animals come bounding out tusks-first if they sense danger.

You might not guess that river otters use dens. Although they spend a lot of time in the water, they require oxygen to breathe.

Like warthogs and many other mammals, river otters use the burrows of other animals, usually beavers, for giving birth.

While many animals borrow burrows, prairie dogs are the original architects of their underground kingdom.

Found in the grasslands of North America, prairie dogs have short bodies and strong claws perfect for digging. They build extensive underground colonies, called towns, that can span hundreds of acres.

Where I live in Northern California, hibernating chipmunks are starting their springtime surfacing. These adorable little animals are so busy, I love it when they return topside.

This vole had me laughing on a recent day at dusk, as it stealthily scrambled out of his hole, grabbed a morsel from under the bird feeder, then shot back to the burrow. He did this numerous times, one tiny morsel at a time.

Some birds use burrows, too.

Burrowing owls use ground squirrel or prairie dog tunnels for their roosting and nesting.

Kingfishers and bee-eaters also nest underground. Bee-eaters loosen the soil or sand by jabbing with their sharp bills, then use their feet to kick out the loosened debris.

Reptiles. Ectotherms, like lizards and snakes who rely on outside sources for thermoregulation, need the energy of the sun to move. After a winter of hibernating underground, they wake up in spring and come out of the earth.

On warm days lately our western fence lizards and alligator lizards are joining us.

A few years back, we found this California whipsnake, who moves as fast as a whip, foraging on top of the bush because the ground hadn’t warmed up yet that day.

Insects and Others. The world of insects is immense, as you know, but here are a few familiar insects who live inside the earth.

Cicadas come out of their burrows after living underground for years in the larval stage. The underground hibernation can last as long as 17 years for some species.

Beetles often live underground too.

Perhaps the most familiar underground insects to humans are termites and ants.

Termites are colonizing insects, of which there are many kinds. The mound-building termites found in Africa, South America and Australia build above-ground structures that act as ventilation systems for the underground nest. Often the mound outlives the colony.

This is a dormant termite mound in Australia that is over six feet tall. In the background of this harsh and dry habitat you can see smaller mounds across the landscape.

And ants, well they are the most supreme underground beings on this earth. Our planet has tens of thousands of ant species. Highly social insects, they form elaborate organized colonies underground.

Leafcutter ants, my favorite ant species, can be found in tropical parts of the Americas. Next to humans, leafcutter ants form the largest and most complex animal societies on Earth.

In this photo, each ant is carrying a morsel of leaf they have bit off. They are headed, all in the same direction, to their subterranean fungal garden. In just a few years, their nests can grow to 98 feet across (30 m) and contain eight million ants.

Lastly, earthworms, crustaceans and many water-associated creatures also live below earth’s surface. These fiddler crabs were entertaining us during low tide, as they skittered in and out of their burrows.

Underground nests, burrows, and dens benefit the earth in many ways, and they have fascinating creatures to watch.

Whether they come bounding out of their burrow in a deadly pursuit, or languidly emerging after 17 years, underground creatures have elaborate subterranean worlds.

Cheers to Earth Day and all of us who live on and in this planet.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Frog Miracles

It’s that incredible time of year when our local frogs are mating. The adult frog is about the size of your thumb, but they are singing with voices so big I can hear them a half-mile away at the neighbor’s pond. Hundreds of them.

Pacific Treefrogs live primarily in the western U.S. The species we see in Northern California is called Pseudacris sierrae or Sierran Treefrog. This lovely little creature has been classified and re-classified so many times, its name is confusing. For simplicity here, we’ll use its more common over-arching name: the Pacific Treefrog (they don’t live in trees).

They require water for mating, so around January or February, depending on how much the earth has warmed, the mature adults journey on their padded toes to ponds or ditches.

The males use their “advertisement calls” to announce their fitness to competing males and to attract females. The male’s throat sack balloons up when it makes this call.

Poor little treefrogs have a lot of predators.

Snakes, raccoons, herons, egrets, and other small mammals and reptiles eat them.

The frogs breed in shallow water sources that usually dry up after winter; taking their chances to reproduce by not being in a predictable, predatory drinking source.

Pacific Treefrog Wikipedia

Although their body color is variable (green, tan, brown, gray, reddish or cream), they’re usually just green or brown, like in these photos. Typically they are the color of their environment; but they do also have the ability to quickly change colors to avoid predation.

It is difficult to get any photo of this frog for many reasons: they are more active at night (dark); usually hidden in leaves or half submerged in water; and they stop ribbiting when they feel the vibration of your footsteps.

In addition, they’re super tiny.

Now it’s past mid-March and the males and females are no doubt beginning to pair up. The female will lay her eggs as the male fertilizes them externally.

She will lay an average of 400-750 eggs, in small clusters of 10-80 at a time.

The eggs are visible in daylight, but you have to almost have your face in the water to see them. Binoculars or a powerful camera lens help.

The eggs are gelatinous tiny balls in a cluster, usually clinging to a twig or plant stem. Here are some clinging to the orange weed as noted.

After mating season, the adults leave and the eggs hatch into tadpoles about two weeks later. Left on their own, the teensy tadpoles aggregate for thermoregulation and to avoid predation. They eat algae and bacteria. This stage lasts 2-2.5 months.

In this stage they undergo an incredible metamorphosis eventually growing four legs, and simultaneously losing their tails. The tail gets absorbed into the froglet body. Because there are hundreds of thousands of tadpoles in the neighbor’s pond, we see the tadpoles in various stages of metamorphosis.

Here you see a tadpole with both legs and its tail. The tail has not yet been absorbed. The sun shadows amplify its features.

This photo reflects two tadpole stages on one leaf.

Here is an older froglet swimming, still with its tail; it has more distinctive adult markings. There is also a younger tadpole, tail only, on the left.

Frogs, tadpoles, froglets — they are a yet another reminder of the miracles of life and all its stages.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Northern Calif. in March

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the emergence of spring has been an exhilarating and uplifting gift. Here are a few of the joys we are currently experiencing in Northern California.

In the valleys, the vineyards are bursting with wild mustard, and ornamental trees are flowering everywhere.

Wildflowers are just starting their show.

California poppies, our state flower, are tightly closed on rainy days and dotting the hillsides with bright orange on sunny days. Soon there will be huge patches of them.

It’s milder down in the valleys. Up on our mountain we’ve had snow and hail several times this week, along with many hours of driving rain and freezing temperatures.

Most of us are glad because more rain and snow now, mean less drought and wildfires in the fall.

After a day or two, the sun comes out and the sky once again turns bright blue.

This wild gooseberry plant on our property survived several bouts of hail this week.

Our grass is brown and crunchy for most of the year. But from January through about April, the grass is rich with chlorophyll. I find myself often staring appreciatively at blades of grass, the sun shining through their verdant membranes.

The oak woodlands are a fairyland. The deciduous oaks, in their mossy, lichen winter look, have slowly been budding for weeks. With more light in each day, the buds are growing plumper, and soon a leaf will pop out here and there.

Underneath the oaks, early wildflowers grace the earth, like buttercups and milkmaids.

Before daylight arrives, the frogs are singing their spring praises, and I often hear duetting great horned owls. For a morning person like me, who’s always up in the dark, this is a blissful greeting.

Daytime birds and creatures are also shifting with the new season. Brush rabbits are rewarded with nutrient-rich grass and weeds.

Bluebird pairs are checking out the just-cleaned nest boxes, and the titmice have switched from their winter calls to their spring love songs.

Some days there’s thick fog and hail, other days it’s mild and sunny, colorful flowers shine through it all, and the wildlife are just as excited as the humans for this new season. Hope is everywhere.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

A Dozen Birds You’ve Never Heard Of

Whether we are familiar with just our local birds, or more, few people know ALL the birds. With more than 10,000 different bird species in the world, there are bound to be some that even the birdiest humans have not heard of. Have fun with this list of a dozen–see if there is even one you know.

1. Water Dikkop.

In the Okavango Delta of Botswana lives this long-legged bird in the thick-knee family. Burhinus vermiculatus, also known as a water thick-knee, is about 15-16 inches (38-41 cm) tall. They are found near water in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and as you can see, it does have thick knees, for which it is named.

2. Paradise Riflebird.

This handsome bird only exists in rainforests of eastern Australia. Lophorina paradisea is in the same family as the show-stopping Birds of Paradise. The male performs an elaborate display in breeding season. (See photo at end, of this bird displaying.) They are about the size of a small falcon. The name “riflebird” refers to the male’s plumage that is iridescent black-green in certain light, resembling the uniform of the British Army Rifle Brigade.

3. Yellow-winged Cacique.

Found primarily in the tropical lowlands of west Mexico, Cassiculus melanicterus is a large, bold, and loud bird; reminiscent of a jay in personality but not at all related. They have a floppy crest which you see on each side of the head here. Pronounced “ka-seek.”

4. Violaceous Euphonia.

A Neotropical songbird in the finch family, Euphonia violacea is such a stunning bird that it is featured on a Trinidad/Tobago postage stamp. They are found in several parts of South America and Trinidad/Tobago. The word “euphonia” is of Greek origin and translates to “sweet-voiced.” (There’s a second Euphonia species at the end.)

5. Red-billed Francolin.

Pternistis adspersus is found in a few countries in South Africa, and is also known as the red-billed spurfowl for the spur on its heel. In the same family as the partridge and pheasant, and resembling quail, they are denizens of the grass where they eat insects, vegetable matter, and seeds.

6. Snowcap.

Found in several Central American countries, the snowcap is in the hummingbird family. Microchera albocoronata is one of the smallest hummingbirds. We enjoyed a sighting of this unusual hummingbird, obviously named for his snowy white cap, on a Costa Rican mountain slope. There are about 360 species of hummingbirds–so many that they can’t all be named hummingbirds. All found in the Americas, hummingbirds have many different names like coronet, hermit, and woodstar.

Break Time.

At this point we have covered half of the dozen birds. If you have never heard of one of them, how wonderful for you to now have learned six new birds on our planet. If you are familiar with several, that’s equally as wonderful. Let’s celebrate with this bird we’ve all heard of. They inhabit every continent except Antarctica: the wise old owl.

7. Coppery-tailed Coucal.

There are about 30 species of coucals, a large Old World bird in the cuckoo family. Centropus cupreicaudus is named for it’s reddish-brown tail, but that dazzling red eye is also noteworthy. Derivation of “coucal” comes from the spurs or claws that many coucal species have.

8. Capped Wheatear.

This is a passerine, or songbird, that we found in Zambia. I never forget this name because I could be named the same. The name “wheatear” translates from “white arse,” which you can see in this photo below. They are primarily Old World birds, but a species or two have established in Canada and Greenland. Oenanthe pileata graces the grasslands with its melodic warbling sound, where it feeds mostly on ants.

9. Red-capped Manakin.

Manakins are entertaining birds for the mating dances the male performs in breeding–one of my favorite species. They buzz and snap their wings and perform spectacular lekking courtship rituals. There are 54 species, all found in the American tropics. We have witnessed 6 or 8 male manakins lekking, but they zip past like a bullet and are nearly impossible to photograph. We were thrilled to find this solo Ceratopipra mentalis quietly drinking and bathing in a creek deep in the rainforest of Belize. The name is from Middle Dutch mannekijn “little man.”

10. Collared Pratincole.

Pratincoles are found in the Old World where they are in the wader (aka shorebird) suborder. With short legs and pointed wings, they can catch insects on the fly, like swallows–an unusual trick for a shorebird. We found this Glareola pratincola in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, Africa. The name “pratincole” comes from the Latin words prātum meadow and incola resident, although they are more water resident than meadow.

11. Black-crowned Tityra.

A medium-sized songbird, titiyras can be found in parts of Mexico, Central America, South America and Trinidad. They feed on fruit and insects, and often lay their eggs in woodpecker nests, so you almost always see them in trees. We spotted this Tityra inquisitor in Costa Rica, but they are common in many Central and South American countries.

12. Spangled Drongo.

Drongos are also a songbird species, found in the Old World tropics. They are named for their forked tails: from Greek dikros “forked” and oura “tail.” Some drongos have elaborate tail decorations, like the Dicrurus bracteatus photographed here. There is only one drongo species in Australia, so we were lucky to find this showy bird with its bright red eyes and decorative markings, singing a complex call in the rainforest.

However many names you recognized, the good news is there’s at least 10,000 more, so striving to know them all will keep us busy for a lifetime. If you previously knew none of them, you’ve learned a lot today.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Marine Mammal Center

Across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco lies The Marine Mammal Center. It is a hospital for injured sea mammals, where they heal the animals and teach us how to help.

The staff of veterinarians, marine professionals, and volunteers rescue and rehabilitate injured animals, then return them to the sea. In addition, they educate the public on what to do if you find an injured sea animal, and other practicalities. Conducting scientific research is also on their agenda, important to advancing global ocean conservation.

Marine Mammal Center’s website — loaded with facts and information about their organization, marine mammals, and ocean conservation.

The Center is currently closed to the public due to Covid, but there are virtual tours and online programs until public gathering becomes safe again. We visited in 2018. Individuals can take a tour ($10/person), amble on their own, visit the science rooms and outdoor hospital. School and group tours are also offered.

The facility is recently built (2009), employing green technology, and sits on a picturesque mountaintop in the Marin Headlands, outside of Sausalito, California.

Whether we live by the sea or not, most of us are aware of the perils and dangers our marine mammals endure. We read about beached whales, rafts of polluting plastic bags floating in the ocean, or the latest oil tanker spills — all of which add to sea mammal distress.

Additionally, the planet’s warming temperatures associated with climate change continue to distress our ocean inhabitants in a myriad of ways. Warming water temperatures affect prey availability, can alter migration routes, increase toxic algae, and more.

Despite all these harrowing occurrences, there are ways we can all help to make the ocean a clean, safe place for thriving sea mammals.

Marine mammals are similar to humans in that they are: warm-blooded, have fur or hair, breathe air through the lungs, bear live young, and nurse their young with milk from mammary glands. The difference is that marine mammals live all or part of their life in the ocean. Their similarity to us is what attracts many people to sea mammals.

Sea mammals include: pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, fur seals and walruses), cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), sea otters, and others.

Injured sea animals brought to the Marine Mammal Center suffer from many life-threatening conditions. Sea lions are the most commonly rescued species, often entangled in fish netting or plastic trash, or suffering from the ingestion of toxic algae.

After an animal is brought to the Center, veterinarians diagnose and treat the animal, and rehabilitation begins in these units pictured below. This is the hospital section of the Marine Mammal Center.

The Center also has science rooms with touchable sea lion fur, marine mammal skeletons and skulls, as well as videos and other interesting and educational sea information.

The northern elephant seal is the Center’s second-most commonly rescued species. The pups are often stranded; washed off shore in a storm, and separated from their mother.

These are healthy elephant seals, protected on the coast in Southern California.

Diseases, entanglement, malnutrition, toxicosis, or injury are common diagnoses. The list of ailments is a long one. For more info, visit the Center’s website page with the diagnosis for each animal they have tended.

The most important thing you can do when you find an ailing marine mammal, is not touch it. Every ocean or marine mammal organization in the world says this. Call professional sea mammal rescuers.

Sea mammal pups are often left alone, while their mother is out catching fish. Usually she comes back with fish to feed her pup. But if the pup has been removed by a well-intentioned person, the pup has been forever separated from its mother. Thus separated, the pups do not get proper weaning, and have not yet learned how to protect themselves.

For contacting a marine mammal rescuer, this link is helpful for United States citizens, but there are also numerous websites for many countries. There are websites, apps, maps, links, organizations, dedicated professionals and volunteers all across the world.

Last year a friend of mine was hiking on California’s Sonoma Coast when she and her husband came upon an emaciated unresponsive harbor seal pup on the trail. Experienced hikers and naturalists, they knew what to do. They knew not to touch the animal, and immediately called the Marine Mammal Center. A designated rescuer in the area was summoned, and came right away.

The rescuer, a volunteer, was without her partner that day, and enlisted and deputized my friends, and the three of them were able to net the pup and carry it up the embankment to her car. The rescuer then drove the pup to the hospital, the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. My friends were rewarded with getting to name the pup, and were later able to track the pup’s health via the Marine Mammal Center’s website. It was a happy ending — the pup survived and was eventually released back into the ocean.

There are many ways to integrate ocean conservation into our lifestyle, travel plans, and home life. This website lists numerous elements of marine conservation, and organizations you can access: Marine Conservation Wikipedia.

Those adorable sea otters in the aquarium windows where we all clamor to watch, the whales that many of us are thrilled to see, hear, and photograph, the barking sea lions we can hear from a cliffside. They thrill us, warm our hearts.

Thank heaven for the professionals, students, and volunteers who have devoted their lives to protecting the sea creatures, and educating all of us on how to perpetuate sea mammal existence.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Wild Parrots

There are approximately 398 species of parrots in the world. They live primarily in tropical and subtropical countries. Let’s immerse ourselves in this wonderfully garish and charismatic bird.

Parrots are classified under the Order Psittaciformes and this includes cockatoos, lorikeets, parakeets, macaws and of course parrots. All birds featured here are wild parrots (photographed pre-Covid).

When you spot a wild parrot, the first surprise is its stunningly bright colors. The bird’s color palette is in full swing–blues, reds, yellows, oranges and lime greens.

But even with their splashy colors, they’re not always as conspicuous as you might think.

This mealy parrot blends in perfectly with the trees.

We spotted this yellow-naped parrot (Amazona auropalliata) from aboard a small boat on a river. You can see how much this green and yellow parrot blends into the background.

Focusing further, you see that a parrot’s bill is magnificent. It is not fused to the skull, allowing it to move independently and also contributing to tremendous biting pressure. A large macaw, like this one below, has the same bite force as a large dog.

The strong bill and jaw helps parrots to crack open hard nuts; their dexterous tongues work out the seeds.

With eyes positioned high on the skull, a parrot can see over and even behind its head.

Even their feet are impressive. Their zygodactyl toes (two toes face forward, two toes face backward) give them dexterity similar to a human’s hand. You can see how this cockatoo, about the size of a small puppy, can effortlessly balance on flimsy branches.

Wikipedia Parrot

Their intelligence is extraordinary. As a highly social creature, they converse frequently among themselves and develop distinct local dialects. They use their local dialects to distinguish familiar members of the flock, and ostracize the unfamiliar members.

You always know when parrots are nearby for the loud squawking you hear among their flocks. They can also be trained to imitate human speech and other sounds.

Unfortunately, their intelligence and beauty have made them attractive as pets for humans, leading to much trouble for parrots. Illegal trapping of wild parrots for the pet trade has led to near-extinction of many parrot species. Pet birds should always be purchased from a reputable source.

Wikipedia International Parrot Trade

Macaws are parrots found only in the New World. We trekked to a macaw lick one dawn morning in Peru, to watch these red-and-green macaws.

They extract and eat minerals out of the clay river bank to neutralize natural toxins they have ingested. Post I wrote about it: The Macaw Lick.

Of the 350+ parrot species in the world, 56 can be found in Australia. If you are looking to see parrots in the wild, this continent is a joy for spotting parrots.

Eucalyptus trees (aka “gum trees” to Australians) and other flowering trees supply the diet for many parrot species.

Cockatoos, one of the largest parrots, can be seen in Australia’s urban and rural settings.

We came upon this large cockatoo flock foraging in the fields.

A bold and kaleidoscopic bird that can talk, fly, climb, bite like a dog and see behind its head. That’s a talented bird.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Parrot range.png
Range Map: Parrots. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Newt news

It is this time of year when the California newt is on the move. Adults are crawling out from under their rocks and heading toward the closest pond to find a mate. A great find on a February hike.

The rains have come and the ground is wet. Fungus and lichen grace the forest floor.

The winter rains of Northern California bring moist conditions to our parched land, filling up shallow meadows and ponds, providing perfect breeding grounds for the California newt.

There are 100 known species of newts in the world, found in North America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia. The California newt, Taricha torosa, is found only in California and is our most common newt.

Interesting info: californiaherps.com

This week, Athena saw a newt on one of our trails. One rainy night a few years ago, we found this pair in our yard.

They are sometimes mistaken for a lizard, but a newt is not a lizard. A lizard is a reptile; whereas a newt is an amphibian in the salamander family.

The newt has an impressive amphibian ability of living on land and water. They are semiaquatic, spending part of the year in water for reproduction, then living on land for the rest of the year.

Their permeable skin makes them reliant on cool, damp places like this.

Unless you scramble around in stream beds lifting up rocks, newts are not easy to find. They stay hidden most of their lives in moist environments, under logs and rocks. They are also quiet creatures. But at this time of year when the ground is wet and they are on their breeding trek, we are granted an occasional sighting.

The California newt is a small creature, ranging in length from 5 to 8 inches (13-20 cm). They have four short legs and move very slowly. If I didn’t know better, when I am watching one it seems like the whole world is in slow motion. One leg lifts…pauses mid-air…goes down…then another leg lifts…pauses mid-air…goes down.

Quite miraculously, they will travel on their short, sluggish legs up to 2.5 miles (4 km) to their breeding grounds.

Though the California newt moves slowly, it has few predators due to its toxic skin. It produces poisonous skin secretions, called tetrodotoxin, repelling most predators. This neurotoxin can cause death in most animals, including humans, if eaten.

One year we found this adult and eft (juvenile) in an underground well tank.

In nearby Berkeley, California, every year from November 1 to March 31, a main thoroughfare in Tilden Park is closed to vehicular traffic exclusively to protect the California newt. For 20 years the Park District has closed South Park Drive to allow newts a safe terrestrial journey as they march to their breeding grounds.

When the newts finally reach their aquatic breeding environment, mating occurs. Then, much like their their fellow amphibian the frog, the eggs stay in the water and a few weeks later the larvae hatch. Larvae undergo metamorphosis, developing legs and lungs. In this process, which takes about two weeks, their gills are no longer needed and are absorbed into the body. When they are fully metamorphosed, they leave the water and begin life on land.

So when we see a beautiful newt on the rainy forest floor, it is a marvel to behold. Tiny little legs on a mission to perpetuate their species. They can breathe under water and then on land. And though they are small creatures, they can kill just about anybody who dares to mess with them.

A tip of the hat to this amazing creature.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

African Antelope

There are more antelope in Africa than any other continent. Of the world’s 91 antelope species, most are native to Africa, and all belong to the family Bovidae. Here are a few of my favorites.

Many continents do not have native antelope: Europe, Australasia, Antarctica and the Americas.

What a beautiful, natural sight it is, then, to observe antelope grazing and leaping across Africa’s savannahs.

They vary tremendously in size.

Larger antelope include the kudu and waterbuck.

Antelope horns vary also. Unlike deer antlers, antelope horns grow continuously and are never shed.

The horns are used as weapons, especially when fighting among their own species.

Sometimes both genders of a species have horns, with the male horns often bigger; but there are variations. In kudus, only the males have horns.

Beisa Oryx, below, have incredibly long horns.

We were lucky one day to come across this elegant sable with its pronounced horns and velvet-black coat. The birds on his back are oxpeckers, they’re taking care of his ticks.

Although all antelope in Africa are speedy out of necessity, the medium- and smaller-sized species are especially fast. Open-grassland species are agile and have powerful legs, endurance.

You can see how fine this impala’s lithe body and long legs are–he runs like the wind.

But no matter how fast they are, they are prey to many other fast, wild beasts. The young antelope are especially vulnerable. And cheetahs are the fastest land animal on earth.

Another antelope species, the wildebeest, migrates across the continent. They travel in impressively large herds, giving them protection from predators. Serengeti Migration Wikipedia.

While most antelope prefer grassland habitat, species like this klipspringer, below, prefer rocky habitats.

Wildlife on the African savannah are beautiful, even elegant, but they are also tough. They come in all sizes, with and without horns, and grace the grasslands, rocky cliffs, and waterways of this immense continent.

How lucky we are to share this planet with such a diverse family.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Sacramento Valley Winter Migration

We are blessed in Northern California every winter with the arrival of millions of geese and ducks. Arriving from Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, the birds spend the winter here on the Pacific Flyway.

The Pacific Flyway is one of four bird migration routes in North America (see map at end). Some waterfowl don’t stay long, they migrate further south in fall. Others stay here for the winter, taking advantage of the mild temperatures. Migratory waterfowl populations peak from Thanksgiving through February. After that, the birds return north to begin breeding.

Roughly 3 million ducks and 1 million geese spend the winter here, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Pacific Flyway Wikipedia

The migratory ducks and geese can be seen all over the Bay Area and surrounding counties, but 44% of them flock to California’s Sacramento Valley. There are several refuges in the valley, the biggest is Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge where there is a self-guided auto tour.

More info: Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex Wikipedia

While most of the Pacific Flyway’s natural wetlands have disappeared in the past 100 years, in the 1930s and 1940s several agencies were formed when the waterfowl populations began to decline. Refuges were established and water diversion projects were eventually set in place. The diverted water aids with agricultural needs and attracts the migrating waterfowl as well.

Today, managers, biologists and refuge workers maintain more than 35,000 acres (14,164 hectares) of wetlands in the Sacramento Valley. Local farmers work cooperatively with agencies, allowing their rice fields to be flooded every winter.

Due to current Covid stay-at-home conditions, we have not yet visited the Sacramento Valley this winter; most photos here are from our visit last winter.

In addition to the millions of geese and ducks, other birds and mammals join the raucous scene.

We spotted these jubilant river otters in a water-filled ditch where they were gorging on fish.

In between waves of wildly noisy geese constantly landing, taking off, and filling the sky, there are over 200 species of other birds enjoying the safe, protected waters.

Songbirds abound, like this western meadowlark.

Egrets and herons are commonly seen, and raptors hunt from the winter-bare treetops.

These ibis were probing their long bills in the mud, actively fishing. They eat crayfish, insects, invertebrates and fish.

We were fortunate to spot this American Bittern through the reeds. They are solitary, elusive birds, difficult to photograph. They extend their necks and look to the sky when they are trying to hide.

Another elusive bird, the ring-necked pheasants shimmered in the sun. Last year we spotted about two dozen individuals, more than usual.

Sandhill cranes are a treasured migratory species that winter in the Sacramento Valley, too.

There are also millions of migratory ducks occupying the refuge waters.

One recent year at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge it was a blustery, rainy day. We came upon this victorious shrike and drenched brush rabbit.

Geese honking, ducks cruising, water sparkling, raptors soaring. Another heaven on earth–this one, a wetland paradise.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Waterfowl Flyways in the United States. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Berries and Birds

With the onset of chilly winter days in Northern California, the insects are gone and the songbirds are feasting on berries. And what a party it is.

Native toyon and madrone berries are the most common winter berry on our mountaintop property. They ripen at this time of year when the berries have become essential.

Usually the berries begin to start appearing in fall, and occasionally a songbird will taste one to test for ripeness. If the berry is not ripe yet, it does not get eaten; it stays on the branch until riper days. I have actually witnessed birds taste-testing and then spitting out the unripe berry.

Then in January the feasting begins.

Every year is different depending on rain and temperatures.

This year the thrushes arrived in fall, more than I’d ever seen before. They stayed for a month or so, but when we didn’t get rain they left our mountaintop. I heard them down in the valley while walking in the park. It’s more mild down there.

January came and the rains came, and now the thrushes are starting to return, fortunately.

Meanwhile, the resident finches and some robins have been enjoying the berries.

Soon, as it always goes, a big flock of robins or cedar waxwings will arrive and spend the day here devouring the berries.

That day will be like the circus coming to town.

Birds everywhere, so much hopping and chirping. A blur of songbirds flying from one berry bush to another, lots of commotion and cross-traffic in the sky.

Robin flocks are unsynchronized and usually several dozen individuals; while waxwing flocks are in perfect synchronicity, and number about two dozen. The cedar waxwings, named for the cedar berries they prefer and the red-tipped wings, fly in formation and land all together in a tree before they disperse to feed.

You can see the tongue on this cedar waxwing.

Hermit and varied thrushes are solitary birds, so it’s not as much of a scene. They wait for the big flocks to leave, and then they hop around snapping up the few remaining berries in the shrubs and undergrowth.

We have other native berries here too, like manzanita, coffeeberry, and blue elderberry. Poison oak produces white berries. They all get eaten, but at different times of the year.

In the Bay Area’s mild winter climate, there are many ornamental non-native plants that produce berries and attract birds. The two berry plants I see most commonly in residential neighborhoods are both in the rose family: cotoneaster and pyracantha.

Last fall we were in our friends’ suburban garden two mornings in a row when large flocks of cedar waxwings dropped down to raid the pyracantha bushes. It was a lively and animated scene dominated by dozens of these elegant birds landing above us.

There is often talk of drunken robins eating fermented berries, though this is something neither I nor Athena have ever witnessed. Scientists don’t really advocate this theory.

I looked at five You Tube videos this week where drunken robins were promised. None of the five showed a teetering robin, but there were zealous flocks plucking at berries and creating a whirlwind of chaos.

Mostly birds prefer the fresh berries, for the sugar content. I have seen them go for the withered leftover berries when there was nothing else available, and maybe those few were fermented. There may be some instances where a bird found a fermented berry….

One of the glories of birds and berries, and life on earth, is the seasons. This season the berries will be eaten, the birds will be nourished, then the days will get longer again, and the thrushes will migrate away, and the spring birds will arrive to begin their mating and nesting.

The sacred cycle of life.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.