Our Forest, Our Cycles

Oak Titmouse

It is Day 12 of the California Wine Country fires, and I am one of the 15,000 people who remain under mandatory evacuation. Not only do burned trees continue to fall posing danger, but the electrical poles are gone. (See fire facts, at the end.)

 

Two weeks ago I lived in a forest, and that forest was my life, and the people and wild animals, trees, and plants there continue to call to me, even as I sleep elsewhere. So today I show you some of the wildlife from better times, with the fervent hope that they have found refuge somewhere, somehow.

Jackrabbit

Varied Thrush, California

The good news is that our house is still standing. Many of our neighbors lost their homes, and one neighbor lost his life. Gale-force winds combined with very dry earth conditions were the cause.

 

Our weather patterns in Northern California are different than many places. We do not have rain all summer, and this is how it has been as long as I have lived here (30+ years). We mow the grass once, sometimes twice, and then by July it stops growing.

 

The rains come in winter, slow down around March, then by around April or May they stop, and do not start again until the following November or December.

 

Some years it doesn’t rain in winter, those are the drought years. We had 4-6 years of drought until this past winter when it rained record amounts. The abundance of rain produced more vegetation, and it was glorious. We had more wildflowers than we’d seen in years, and the wildlife were more plentiful too, benefitting from the wealth of more plants, bugs, and moisture.

Indian Warrior

Shooting Stars

But when the summer came, like in all years, the grasses dried up. This year, as a result of the lively spring, we had more grasses than previous years.

 

You live long enough in one place, you see the weather patterns shift, you watch the cycles. I find this to be one of the pure joys of life on earth…the cycles.

Western skink (juvenile), California

Mountain Quail, California (male)

Gardeners notice the subtleties in their plantings, farmers adjust to the cycles daily, and wildlife lovers watch the variables in species.

 

In our forest we had more bugs this spring, which brought in more birds, and they were prolifically nesting. This brought in more hawks and mammals, all hunting. The spring frog-mating season was twice as long.

Adult Pacific Tree Frog

Northern Alligator Lizard, California

Striped Racer, Calif.

By September the berry trees were producing for a promising winter of red berries, and the numerous species of oaks were loaded with acorns. October was rife with busy woodpeckers and gray squirrels burying acorns.

 

But then we had a parching week-long heat wave. The deciduous trees didn’t lose their leaves gradually, instead the leaves burned up from the daily 100+ degree (F) temperatures.

 

After that the winds came in, huge trees blew over, brought down live electrical wires, and other mayhem ensued, with disastrous results.

Gold Wire and Ladybug

We’ll see what the winter brings. I am delighted to be here, living, to watch. And the good news is:  the earth heals, and so do her inhabitants.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

My humble thanks to each and every one of you who wrote kind and loving messages this past week. You brought sunshine during this difficult time.

 

Fire Facts:

There have been 250 wildfires in the Wine Country since October 8, burning 245,000 acres. Eleven thousand firefighters battled the fires, 100,000 people were evacuated, 42 people lost their lives (per Cal Fire). Most fires have now been 80% or more contained.

 

 

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Aloha Big Island

Place of Refuge aka Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, my favorite place to snorkel

I have visited all the main Hawaiian Islands at least twice, always with a flutter of joy, but the one I fervently return to, my favorite, is the Big Island.

 

It’s not a typical tropical island, with white sand beaches, sand as fine as sugar. It’s paradise in a raw form, with fiery volcano eruptions, and warm Pacific waves meeting porous lava sprawls.

Kalij Pheasant, Big Island

The Big Island, also known as Hawaii Island, is built from five volcanoes, some of which are still active (see map below). It is the largest and youngest island of the chain. At it’s widest point, it is 93 miles (150 km) across.

 

The volcano activity is literally the foundation of this island. Eruptions have changed the shape of the land, sent residents scampering, closed roads, and claimed lives.

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, Place of Refuge, Hawaii

 

So what is it about the Big Island that makes it so glorious?

 

The green sea turtles foraging in the lava rocks.

Green Sea Turtle

 

The vibrant tropical fish and colorful coral.

Yellow tangs, Big Island

Pink coral, Big Island

 

Expansive ocean vistas and endless ways to ride the waves.

Big Island

 

Psychedelic  lava patterns with pooled puddles, crabs, and shorebirds.

Lava beach and sea

Crab, Big Island

 

Sitting beneath the rattling palm fronds, steeping in the magic of the black sand beaches.

Punalu’u Beach

 

Flowers and fragrance and geckos.

Hibiscus

 

Hawaiian gecko on our rental car

 

Adventuring inland and up into the mountains to see the native birds and forests.

Apapane, native Hawaiian bird, Big Island

Nene pair, Hawaiian goose, Hawaii’s (threatened) state bird

Jet birding, binoculars inside jacket, pouring rain

 

Sitting quietly in the parks, watching the colorful birds and Hawaiian families, graced by the gentle fragrance of plumeria.

Myna pair on palm frond

Java Sparrow, Hawaii

Red-crested Cardinal on a coconut

 

Driving across the island on Saddle Road, surrounded by miles and miles of lava fields.

Saddle Road, Big Island. Our rental car, left of center.

 

Hiking in the old volcano craters and lava tubes.

Kilauea Iki Crater with hikers on trail

 

Watching Kilauea Volcano smoke and spew.

Close-up, Halema’uma’u Crater at Kilauea Volcano

 

Relaxing on the lanai and watching the sun set.

 

Thanks for joining me on the Big Island…or as they say in Hawaii, Mahalo.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Five volcanoes of the Big Island. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Kangaroos

Eastern Grey Kangaroo

It is an unusual thing to see a large mammal effortlessly hopping across the countryside.

 

Eastern Grey Kangaroo pair

 

Endemic to Australia, kangaroos live on most of the continent and some surrounding islands, see map below. Called macropods for their family name Macropodidae, there are about 55 species of kangaroos.

 

There are several species of large kangaroos, and they are roughly the size of an adult human, or a little bigger. In addition there are about 50 smaller macropods including wallabies, wallaroos, and tree kangaroos. Wallabies are generally knee-high.

 

Mareeba Rock Wallaby with joey

 

Ancient Kangaroo Rock Art, Kakadu NP

 

Wikipedia overview.

 

While diets vary for each species, all kangaroos are herbivores. They have specialized teeth and chambered stomachs for eating and digesting grass and plants; can endure long periods without drinking, by getting water from their diet.

 

Red-legged Pademelon with joey

 

Like most marsupials, kangaroos are born after a short gestation. The word “marsupial” derives from Latin and Greek for pouch.

 

The size of a lima bean, a newborn kangaroo begins life by crawling from the uterus to the pouch. The hind legs are still stumps, but forelegs are just big enough for the joey (baby) to crawl into the pouch. They live in the pouch, nourishing on the mother’s teats, for months.

 

Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo (rare)

Australia is a large continent, about the same size as the contiguous United States. It is also a land of extreme temperatures, and animal life can be tenuous. When conditions are favorable, kangaroos reproduce rapidly; during droughts they do not give birth, and the population drops.

Agile Wallaby

 

Another kangaroo challenge on this expansive and weather-extreme continent is finding food and water. For this they have evolved with special elastic tendons in their legs, allowing them to travel far distances without expending much energy. They are the only large mammal on earth to hop.

 

The red kangaroo, the largest species, comfortably hops at about 12-16 miles per hour (20-25 km/h). For short distances they can speed up to 43 mph (70 km/h).

Wallaby

 

Mareeba Rock Wallaby at Granite Gorge

 

Eastern Grey Kangaroo mob

 

I witnessed a comical scene with kangaroos once, while birding. There were three of us in a jeep, out in the middle of nowhere, half-hidden behind some brush. A mob (group) of large, grey kangaroos came hopping by and they didn’t know we were there. They were clipping along at a good speed. When they saw us, they stopped immediately, trying to redirect, but they were moving so fast that their momentum had them slipping and sliding in all directions.

 

They hop like a bunny, digest like a cow, and occupy only one continent. Hip hip for the hopper.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Check out my mystery novel, filled with Australian lore.

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Image by SnakeByte Studios

 

Oilbirds in Trinidad

Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad, The Veranda

We were going to the Dunston Cave on the grounds of Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad, a tropical island in the southern Caribbean.

 

Our guide, a young man from Trinidad, warned us it would be a tricky hike–people always fell–because of the descent on a slippery slope into the cave. Hang onto the railings, he said.

 

We were embarking on a two-hour hike to see the rare and protected oilbirds. Due to the birds’ aversions to disturbance, no one is allowed into the cave without an escort guide from the Nature Centre.

 

He said when we got close we would hear the birds; they sounded like “someone getting strangled while vomiting.”

 

We spotted wildlife as we went.

Purple Honeycreeper (male), Trinidad

Agouti, Trinidad

Tufted Coquette (hummingbird), male, Asa Wright Nature Centre

 

There were steep hills and narrow trails, thick growth and fragrant whiffs of a thriving, tropical environment. Several times we passed camera traps that record sightings of armadillo, raccoon, and an occasional ocelot.

 

He pointed out a hairy tarantula hidden inside the hand railing, and a white hawk posed for us.

White Hawk, Trinidad

Oilbirds live in just a few places in South America. This site is said to be the most accessible for viewing the oilbirds, hosts a stable breeding colony.  Wikipedia overview. 

 

Steatornis caripensis are the only nocturnal fruit-eating bird in the world. They forage at night, and augment their vision using echolocation,  a technique usually associated only with bats.

Vines outside of Dunston Cave, Trinidad

Their diet is palm and laurel fruit, and this bird is big. The size of a hawk. They measure 16-19 inches long (40-49 cm), and have a wingspan of 37 inches (95 cm).

Dunston Cave stream, Trinidad

The common name “oilbird” comes from days gone by when the chicks were captured and boiled down to make oil. Indigenous people and early settlers used the oil for cooking and lamp-lighting fuel.  Fortunately, those days are over.

 

For the final descent we were surrounded by high rock walls with dense foliage, streaming vines, ferns, and palms. In spite of the slickness, it was enchanting…until we heard them.

Dunston Cave, black crevasse in center. Green railings guided us.

Sounded like wild grunting pigs. In front of us were towering canyon walls with a very narrow, dark crevasse; this was the cave. A shallow stream flowed into it.

 

The birds were screeching, loudly, but we saw no birds. It was completely dark in there. During the day they roost on ledges inside the cave. Though our group was about a dozen, we could only go in three people at a time; no flash photography permitted. They’re very skittish to any disturbance.

Friends in our group navigating their footing, the guide (in green) at Dunston Cave

 

Oilbirds, Dunston Cave, Trinidad

Oilbirds on ledge inside Dunston Cave, Trinidad

There is a whole crew of naturalists who tend to and protect the oilbirds, climbing a precarious ladder, recording nests and nesting activity, and submitting scientific information. Annual oilbird counts have been conducted here since 1969. To date there is a population of 183 birds.

 

We weren’t there long, so as not to disturb them, and soon we turned around and climbed back up. It was hot and the climb was steep, a man in our group fainted, but he was okay.

 

As we emerged from below, I thought about this remarkable bird that survived a history of persecution, perched on the ledge and screeching inside that cave, now healthy and reproducing.

 

But just then the Bearded Bellbird called. We stole off to find yet another avian oddity and delight.

 

All photos: Athena Alexander

Sending our warmest thoughts to the folks of the Caribbean during this furious hurricane season.

Map of Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago, bottom right. Courtesy scuba-diving-smiles.com

 

Owls All Around

Barred Owl, Texas

Everything about owls is remarkable. Large eyes with binocular vision, facial disks around the eyes that funnel sound more acutely, ears that are asymmetric for better sound coverage, feathers structured for silent flight, a neck that can rotate, and powerful talons for skull-crushing.

 

There are over 200 species of owls in the world, living on all continents except Antarctica.

 

They are classified into two different families, Strigidae and Tytonidae,  with about 19 owl species in North America, 42 in Africa, and 13 in Europe. South America, 55; India, 30; Australia, 11. Sources differ in numbers. (Range map below.)

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

 

 

Great Horned Owlet, California

 

Pearl-spotted Owlet, Zambia, Africa

 

Wikipedia overview on Owls.

 

With hundreds of owl species there are many exceptions, but for the most part, they are nocturnal birds. Carnivorous, preying on rodents, small mammals, and insects, many species can be seen hunting at dawn or dusk.

 

Although all owls have a similar shape, they vary widely in size. I have seen the world’s lightest owl, no bigger than the size of my hand, appropriately called the Elf Owl (in Arizona). They weigh 1.4 ounces (40 g). I’ve also seen the largest owl in Africa, the Giant Eagle Owl, pictured second above. It was 26 inches tall (66 cm).

 

Great Horned Owl, California

 

Barn Owl. Photo: Peter Trimming, British Wildlife Centre. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The most common owl worldwide is the barn owl, in a family of its own, Tytonidae.

 

You can’t hear a thing when an owl flies. Each leading feather is serrated, making the wingbeat silent. The rest of the flight feathers have soft, velvety edges absorbing any other sound during movement. This allows the owl to surprise and capture prey.

 

I’ve been out in the dark looking for owls when one has flown past me and I didn’t even know it.

 

Great Horned Owls, Alaska

 

Although owls are elusive and often camouflaged, it is possible to see them in the wild. I’ve provided two links, below, for locating the owls in your area.

 

I have spent many hours “owling” at night with guides, but have also found many species while hiking without a guide. They’re usually in the woods, you have to look up in the trees and be quiet. Cities with large parks have owls too.

 

A good way to become familiar with the owl species in your area is to visit your local raptor or bird rescue centers, they often rehabilitate injured owls. They may have information, too, where wild owls have been spotted.

 

I once lived near a small natural history museum–Randall Museum–in San Francisco, visited their permanently-injured owls frequently.

 

Great Horned Owl and owlet on nest, California

 

Rufous Owl, Australia

 

Our guide’s gear for owling, in Australia.

 

The subject of much folklore, owls have mystified humans for centuries. They are mesmerizing to watch, magical to hear, and possessing skills like no other bird.

 

When you do see an owl, you don’t forget it.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander, all owls in the wild (except Wikipedia barn owl)

The Owl Pages — owls worldwide. Enter your country in the Search bar.

owling.com — North and Central American owls

 

Mottled Owl, Belize, perched under a palm frond

 

Black and White Owl, Costa Rica

 

Range map of Owls of the World. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Giant Otters

Amazon Basin

We were in Peru, deep in the Amazon jungle on the Madre de Dios River, boarding a raft with hopes of finding the Giant Otters.

 

Although they are listed as endangered, there was a chance we might see them on an oxbow lake. The world’s largest freshwater carnivores, Pteronura basiliensis primarily eat fish, especially piranha; they also eat crabs, snakes, and small caiman.

Giant Otter

The raft had been specially constructed for viewing these otters. It was a flat, wooden platform built on top of two canoes. The two canoeists paddled in unison.

 

Although the otters are highly social and vocal mammals, we were asked to be quiet and still, for they are rare, and getting rarer.

We had questions. How giant are they?

 

Males are in the range of five feet long (1.5 m), not including the tail; and females are slightly smaller.

 

How rare are they?

 

Found only in South America, they have already gone extinct in some countries. Sadly, there are  only 1,000-5,000 individuals left on earth (Wikipedia). They are on the International Conservation Red List (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species). 

 

Wikipedia giant otter overview.

 

So we sat still and quiet, looking for this special otter.

 

I’ve seen both wild River Otters and Sea Otters. Adorable and quiet, they endearingly flip and spin around. In Monterey Bay, it is common to see the Sea Otters cracking open mussels on their chests, so cute.

 

So I thought I knew what to expect if we did find the Giant Otters…but I was wrong.

Howler Monkeys

There’s a constant feeling of intimidation and mystery on the Amazon. Howler monkeys woke us up that dark morning, making booming, howling sounds. I thought we were in a tornado or something.

 

The guide told us Giant Otters eat piranha. I looked around me. Caiman were gliding past us. We’re on this raft without railings, and there are piranha and caiman swimming around.

White caiman, Manu Nat’l. Park, Peru

 

Hoatzins

 

And some really big birds the size of pheasants were watching us, croaking and hissing. Hoatzins.

 

Fortunately, we found the Otters. I was initially shocked at their size. The size of a human. Five feet long, plus the tail.

Giant Otter

They were not the least bit concerned with us. We were the intruders. They were in their element, frolicking and boisterous.

Giant Otter

They would disappear under the dark water, come up with a fish and tear at it with great abandon, using their large, webbed forepaws. They were barking and snorting, and gregarious.

 

Giant Otters

Soon we quietly paddled away. I hoped they would always have this beautiful place to hunt and thrive.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

Piranha. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

Weaver Nests

Donaldson-Smith Sparrow Weaver and nest, Samburu, Kenya

As the safari guide cruises across the African savannah, with wild cheetahs stalking gazelles and thousands of wildebeest amassing in huge herds, no one is looking for a finch-like bird. But after a few days one starts to wonder: what are all those grassy clumps in the trees?

 

Those are weaver nests.

 

Weavers are a large family of colorful songbirds similar to finches, and they are one of the most architecturally-talented birds on the planet.

 

There are 64 species in the Ploceidae family, found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. They do not migrate, living year-round in warm climates.

 

To learn more about the bird, visit Wikipedia Weaver Bird. You will see there are more than just 64 species from the Ploceidae family; additional weaver birds in other taxonomic families total 117 species.

 

Zambia Village surrounded by grass

 

Weaver nest, Zambia

 

The nest is built with grass found in the immediate vicinity. The males build the nests; females choose their mate based on the nest’s location, design, and comfort.

 

Typically bird nests are either open cups or hidden inside tree cavities. But not the weavers’.  It is cylindrically shaped; with a narrow entrance hole usually facing downward to deter predators. In the African savannah, where predators abound and trees do not, the weavers have cleverly designed an enclosed grass clump hanging from a tree.

 

Named for their weaving abilities, the male uses only his feet and bill to weave the elaborate construction. First he tears grass blades and other materials into long strips, then he loops the initial strands onto the tree limb.

 

Next he intricately weaves the grass to form the hollow body; last, he creates the tubular entrance.

 

The weaver birds reside in many different countries, each with different habitats, so the building materials vary. Notice in the photos above, the dry grass around the Zambian village is reflected in the weaver nest built nearby.

 

Moreover, each weaver nest design is species-specific. I have included diagrams from my field guide (Birds of Kenya, by Zimmerman, Turner, Pearson, 1999) to demonstrate how consistent this is.

Weaver nest diagram in Birds of Kenya

Second weaver nest diagram in Birds of Kenya

Number 1 in the first diagram, for example, belongs to the African Golden Weaver. Numbers 10a and 10b in the same diagram, each with dual parts, is home to the Spectacled Weaver. The tree in the second diagram, labeled 10a, shows multiple Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver nests.

 

The Sociable Weaver has the most elaborate nest of all.  They are colonial nesters and build massive nests that can weigh up to a ton. One nest can have over a hundred pairs of nesting sociable weavers, and additionally host other non-weaver species concurrently. This nest is the largest built by any bird on earth.

Sociable Weaver nests, Namibia. Photo: Adam Riley, 10000birds.com

Regardless of how many birds are occupying the nest, sometimes a pair only, there is a lot of color and chatter and acrobatics.

Vieillot’s Black Weaver male weaving, Ghana. Photo: Adam Riley, 10000birds.com

When we watch television documentaries about the African savannah, it looks like there’s an adrenaline-raising chase going on all the time. In reality, there are certainly moments like that, but often lions are sleeping during the day after a night of hunting; or there’s no action in sight. There are definitely lulls.

 

This is a good time to seek out the weavers. Because they never seem to stop and rest, they are busy with their home-building tasks always. And it’s no wonder–there’s a lot of weaving to be done.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

For more Weaver info and photos: 10,000 Birds.

Sociable Weaver nest from below. Photo: Rui Ornelas, courtesy Wikipedia

Sociable weaver nest on electricity pole, South Africa. Photo: Mike Peel, courtesy Wikipedia