Kingfishers of the World

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

A bird widely distributed across the world today, the kingfisher inhabits almost every continent (map below). This successful and thriving species has fossils that date back 30-40 million years.

Forest Kingfisher, Australia

 

Contrary to their name, not all kingfishers catch and eat fish; some species prefer frogs, snakes, worms, and more. Wikipedia overview.

 

Green Kingfisher (female), Belize

 

Though sources differ, there are approximately 100 species of kingfishers. Largely tropical birds, the majority inhabit the Old World tropics and Australasia.

 

The species we see most in North America is the belted kingfisher,.   In Europe, the kingfisher most commonly seen is appropriately called: common kingfisher. There are 10 species in Australia, 18 in Africa.

 

Whenever I am walking around a lake or river and hear the characteristic ratcheting of the belted kingfisher, whatever I am doing, I look up and search for this avian friend.

 

Australia, Kakadu Nat’l. Park

Kingfishers have a disproportionately large head and long, pointy bill; with short legs and stubby tails. They range in size from 3.9 inches long (10 cm) (African dwarf kingfisher) to 18 inches (45 cm) (giant kingfisher).

 

Giant Kingfisher, Botswana

When you come across a kingfisher, they are often perched on a branch, scanning the ground or water below. One of the easier birds to spot, they have bright colors, a distinct shape, and a predictable behavior.

 

Kingfishers have excellent vision, including binocular and color; and are able to recognize water reflection and depth. Some species have eye membranes for water protection. The pied kingfisher, for example, has a bony plate that slides across the eye on water impact.

 

Pied Kingfisher, Botswana

 

Blue-winged Kookaburra with frog in mouth, Australia

 

Little Kingfisher, Australia

Once the kingfisher spots the prey, they swoop down and snatch it, return to the perch. Holding the prey in their strong bill, they beat it against the limb, breaking it down to a sizeable portion for consumption.

 

Sometimes kingfishers will hover above water and dive in for fish.

Green Kingfisher (male), Belize

 

A kingfisher discussion would not be complete without mentioning the laughing kookaburra. Although this kingfisher lives primarily in Australia, many of us all over the world have heard of it, from the song. “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree….”

 

Laughing Kookaburra, Australia

You can hear the great old children’s song, written by an Australian music teacher in 1934, here: the song

 

The real-life sound of a laughing kookaburra is truly wonderful. When I first heard it in a park in Sydney, it startled me.

 

Loud and cackling, it sounds nothing like laughter. You might think it was a monkey (or a wild beast) if you didn’t know better. Kookaburra call. 

Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Zambia

With a variety of specialized hunting skills, successful worldly range, and striking  colors, this bird is one that many of us have been celebrating our whole life.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Kingfisher range. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

Jackrabbit Joy

Jackrabbit

Every morning the jackrabbit comes to visit. There are many remarkable aspects to a jackrabbit, but the one I like most is not in any of the research.

 

Technically the jackrabbit is not a rabbit, they’re a hare. Our northern California species, black-tailed jackrabbit, Lepus californicus, is the most widely distributed jackrabbit in North America (map below).

 

They like open grasslands and the chaparral terrain of the western U.S. and Mexico; and stay here year-round, eating grass and other ground plants. I’ve read they are nocturnal animals, but I see my visitor every morning; our critter cam captures them here day and night.

 

Unlike rabbits, hares have their young in a shallow depression, not burrows; and when hare babies (leverets) are born, they are in full fur, not furless like baby rabbits. One or two days after birth, hares are independent. Wikipedia info.

With many predators (fox, coyote, bobcat, and mountain lion to name a few), the jackrabbit is all about speed. Their quickness is attributed to the powerful rear legs. They can reach speeds of up to 40 mph (64 kph).

 

When I come upon one while driving on the narrow back roads, I know it might be awhile before he or she gets off the road. They run in a zig-zag pattern, to distract and divert their predator. Unfortunately they think the car is a predator. So they run and run, zig-zagging along the one-lane road, and we go like this for several minutes before he finally ducks into the brush.

 

My favorite thing about the jackrabbits are their long ears–they twitch and move with every sound; constantly assessing the danger.

 

Sometimes the jackrabbit goes into a torpor, a sort of sleep with eyes open; they just sit upright and take a half-snooze, look wide awake. How can I tell they’re asleep when the eyes are open? The ears aren’t twitching.

Checking out the water source

It’s the hare’s long ears that gave them the confusing name of jackrabbit. Mark Twain said, in Roughing It, “…[the jackass rabbit] has the most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but the jackass.” Sometime after this publication in 1872, the term “jackass rabbit” shortened to “jackrabbit.”

 

With all these curious features and talents, there is one more thing I find truly wonderful about the jackrabbit.

 

When the sunshine is behind this soft, furry speedster, and he is still for a moment, those glorious pink ears light up, glowing with rosy life, revealing vulnerability and vitality too.

Drinking water

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander and critter cam

Black-tailed jackrabbit, Lepus californicus, range. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

Let the Nesting Begin

Western Bluebird (male)

I’m always on the look-out for bird nests at this time of year. They’re all over, you just have to be in tune–the country or city, trees or eaves.

 

So far we have found five nests on our property: bushtits, violet-green swallows, western bluebirds, oak titmice, and pacific-slope flycatchers.

Bushtit

It takes some time to find a bird nest; it should, that’s the nature of a nest. How crafty the adult is at hiding the nest, and then keeping it a secret, is directly contingent upon the survival of the young, and ultimately the success of the species.

 

For the bushtits, it was a treasure hunt. One day I noticed they were a pair. Gregarious birds, they are always in flocks of about a dozen, except in spring when they pair off for breeding.

 

After that, I started noticing they were nearby several times a day, not just their once-a-day fly-through. Then I watched with binoculars and saw one had caught a worm and instead of gobbling it up, the bird carried it off.

 

Soon after, we followed the little fluffball as it disappeared into a manzanita bush. Bingo — we found a pocket of lichen in the center of the bush. You can see how hidden it is.

Bushtit nest (in center)

 

If you’re interested in attracting nesting birds, there are many things you can do, especially providing: food, water, shelter, safety. The main thing: be attentive.

Violet-green swallow on nest box

Info about nest boxes:

National Wildlife Federation, Nesting, U.S.

Nestbox Info and Books, England

 

As for finding nests, start watching bird behavior and you’ll be amazed how busy they are.

How to Nest Watch

How to Find a Nest, Canada

 

Good book (U.S.) with bird nest specifics: Peterson Field Guides, Birds’ Nests

 

This year and last, our neighbors lamented there were no more swallows in the area. What happened to the swallows? they said.

 

I grinned. We have them swooping overhead, all day every day, from March to June.

 

Here’s a previously written post about their nesting: Violet-green Swallows.

 

Every spring the violet-green swallows and  western bluebirds have a few weeks of territorial chest-thumping before they choose their respective houses.

 

Bluebird at nest box

 

The oak titmouse is always “our” very first songbird to nest. This year they found a cozy spot inside an old tree snag.

Oak Titmouse

It is for this reason that we keep some dead trees standing–they are a wealth of life regardless of how dead they look.

 

Oak Titmouse Nest Site (round hole toward top of snag)

The pacific-slope flycatchers migrate up every spring from Mexico. We have hosted so many generations of this bird that I could write their family tree.

 

A post I wrote about them: Generations of Flycatchers.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher on nest. Nest materials are same debris as on roof.

Many people don’t have big yards to provide nest spots. I like this story from fellow-blogger Helen at Tiny Lessons Blog. She helped engage the community in providing a new nesting place for the osprey at her local salt marsh: the fundraising efforts and the new nest.

 

What a wonderful thing to live where birds continue to reproduce. And there are so many ways to view the chicks, whether it’s in your yard, a community park, or from your computer via live cams.

 

It’s a sweet reminder of the joy of life.

 

Parent Pacific-slope Flycatcher with a lot to sing about

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Big Sur, California

Highway 1 vista, Big Sur California

Big Sur is a region of coastal central California. Originally named by the Spanish, it translates as “the big south,” and anyone exploring it experiences the vastness.

 

It is an endless pleasure to live relatively close to Big Sur. We take road trips every few years, visit favorite spots, and try new ones, too.

Highway 1, California

It is a popular tourist destination. The only road, Highway 1, winds through the mountains along the jagged Pacific Coast, taking Big Sur visitors past sparkling ocean vistas and miles of protected, undeveloped land.

 

Although opinions differ about what exactly is Big Sur, it is generally thought of as the  Highway 1 area between Monterey and San Simeon, an expanse of about 80-100 miles (129-161 km). There are forests and parks inland too.

 

The Big Sur coast is the “longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the [contiguous] United States.” (Wikipedia). More Big Sur info here.

 

For centuries this area remained undeveloped. The rugged Santa Lucia Mountains rendered the coast inaccessible, isolated.

Black-crowned Night-Heron foraging in kelp. Point Lobos, CA

But eventually the highway was built among the precarious, ever-moving mountains; completed in 1937. Convicts built it.

 

Some part of the highway is almost always closed, due to rock or mud slides. There is a section closed now, a result of recent storms. The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge collapsed. (See photos at the end.) If you are planning a trip, look up road closures here.

 

McWay Falls, Big Sur

 

Northern Elephant Seals, Piedras Blancas

 

Pebble Beach Golf Course, 6th hole. Photo: B. Gagnon. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Some of the frequently visited spots include coastal towns like Monterey and Carmel, and the Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

 

Golfers take to Pebble Beach, and families descend on Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Map of Big Sur

May of Hwy 1, Big Sur. Courtesy Wikipedia.

In between these human places lie pristine beaches loaded with elephant seals;  migrating whales cruise by, and the cool, coastal waters are abundant with marine mammals.

 

There are also many bird species including the critically endangered California Condor.

California Condor, Calif.

Wild iris

 

 

 

 

 

My favorite place to go is Point Lobos. It is a state nature reserve with trails, wildlife, an underwater marine sanctuary, and dynamic tide pools.

 

Point Lobos, California

Here’s a post I wrote about Point Lobos.

 

We often spend about two days exploring Point Lobos and then we’re back on the road again, heading south down the coast. I’ve enjoyed many boat rides on the Monterey Bay, too.

 

Harbor Seals

Each day is usually a long one, with many different adventures. The wind off the Pacific can be strong, and there’s often fog.

 

Cambria coast, California

Whatever we did that day, at the end of it, when I finally close my eyes and the sea sounds start to fade, I find I’m giddy about what the new day will bring.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

Rock slide on Hwy 1, 1994. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 has been closed and condemned due to damage from storms in Big Sur, Calif. on Wednesday, March, 8, 2017. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

 

The third and final span of the condemned Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge came down Wednesday. (Photo courtesy Caltrans)

Hwy. 1, Big Sur. March, 2017. Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge taken down after collapse. Photo The Mercury News. mercurynews.com

 

The Basilisk Lizard

Basilisk Lizard, Costa Rica

Gliding on a pontoon boat down the Tarcoles River in Costa Rica, we were literally focusing on birds when a unique lizard completely surprised us. I had never seen this phenomenon before, and I have never seen it since.

 

The lizard, the common basilisk, lives in the rainforests of Central and South America near rivers and streams.

Tarcoles River, cattle egret

Earlier, we had been hiking and birding the jungle of Carara National Park. The heat was extreme, humidity was high, and the mosquitoes were thick.

 

By late afternoon the earth had cooled down, wildlife were out, and we were quietly and slowly cruising through the mangrove swamp. The slight breeze produced by the boat was heavenly.

Boat-billed Heron

We came across nesting boat-billed herons, and a bountiful array of birds including macaws eating almonds and toucans hidden in the branches.

Crocodile

Birds and crocodiles continued with their endeavors as we peacefully floated by.

 

Suddenly there was a splashing commotion and in a flash this lizard skittered across the surface of the water.

 

How does a lizard run on top of water?

 

I had previously seen this trick of the “Jesus Lizard” on nature programs. They stand upright in the water on their two hind legs, and streak across the water’s surface.

 

A  small reptile with numerous predators, they turn on their racing legs when threatened. It wasn’t a busy river and our pontoon boat had scared him.

Basilisk lizard, Tarcoles River

Basiliscus basiliscus have wide-webbed feet with scaly fringes that expand when they hit the surface of the water. While the front legs remain upright and motionless, the back legs hit the water, creating a pocket of underwater air that supports the lightweight reptile. Simultaneously, their feet are essentially water-pedaling, pushing outward in a way that  balances the lizard.

 

The one we saw was about 12″ long (30 cm) with an additional 8″ (20 cm) of tail. That’s him in the first photo. Doesn’t look like he can fly across water, does he?

 

How far can they run on top of the water?

 

We were in a shallow river with natural sand bars, logs, and downed trees; he ran a distance of about 15 feet (4.5 m).

Basilisk Lizard in Belize

But they can go further. Wikipedia says the smaller basilisk lizards can run atop the water’s surface for about 32-64 feet (10-20m). It also says they can run up to 7 mph (11 km/h). Wikipedia info.

 

Short science video of running basilisk.

 

I love all lizards, but the basilisk is right there in my top five.

 

All photos:  Athena Alexander

Osprey with fish, Tarcoles River

 

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, Tarcoles River

Basalisk lizard in Belize

Location of Costa Rica

Costa Rica. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Earth Day Success Story

Bodega Bay

When you look at this photo, and then the next one, you can see what Bodega Bay is in 2017 (color photo), compared to what it was about to become in 1963 (B/W photo)–a nuclear power plant.

 

HOLE IN THE HEAD: BEFORE

PGandE Nuclear Reactor Plant Project, Bodega Bay, CA. 1963. Photo by Karl Kortum, Courtesy Sonoma Co. Museum

If it hadn’t been for a determined group of ruffled citizens, outraged residents, and concerned scientists, this sparkling northern California bay would be filled today with backwater from a nuclear reactor site…or worse.

 

Great Egret fishing at Bodega Bay

 

It was the perfect location for a nuclear reactor plant, slated to be the biggest nuclear generator in history. Requiring abundant water to moderate the internal heat of fission, the nuclear plant was positioned to tower over the Pacific Ocean where it could use the ocean waters as a convenient coolant.

Western Gull, Bodega Bay

California’s powerful utility company, PG and E, had already applied for the permit, dug the pit, installed rebar, and set up for construction. Having begun the project in 1958, the power company was gaining momentum by the early 1960s.

Bodega Bay oceanside

Then came the heroes. There were many of them–they changed the course of history in Bodega Bay. Harold Gilliam, Karl and Bill Kortum, Joel Hedgpeth, David Pesonen, Doris Sloan, Hazel Mitchell, and Rose Gaffney — to name a few.

 

There was also a geophysicist, Pierre Saint-Amand, who did seismology tests and concluded that building a nuclear plant atop the active San Andreas Fault was a terrible idea.

 

These people didn’t know it then, but they were early environmentalists.

 

They spread the word. Hearings, protests, surveys, investigations, and lobbying ensued.

 

In 1964 the power company withdrew its application and left the site.  Read the full story here.

 

Bodega Bay Harbor Marina

Killdeer and seaweed at Bodega Bay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Originally it was called Campbell Cove, at Bodega Head; then it was touted as Atomic Park. When the utility company dug the 70-foot hole, the new name became Hole in the Head. And it’s still called that today.

 

Bodega Bay Hole in the Head

Soon the hole filled up with rainwater, and native shrubs and plants began to grow. Today, over half a century later, it is a tranquil little pond.

 

One day I stood there and counted five different species of raptors overhead at one time. The raptors like the updraft from the hillside.

 

Bodega Bay clamming

Bodega Bay and the Pacific Ocean host a vast wealth of marine mammals year-round, including harbor seal pups and migrating gray whales. Clean and cool waters are lively with invertebrates, crustaceans, salmon and steelhead; Dungeness crab are the holiday draw.

 

Marbled Godwit

Over 200 bird species come to Bodega Bay, including migrating shorebirds like the marbled godwit; they spend the winter months here on the Pacific Flyway.

 

Before there even was an Earth Day, or anything called environmentalists, here lived a courageous community who fought to keep the earth intact.  Fortunately for us, they won.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

For more Bay Area history, check out my latest mystery novel.

Available at Amazon and other etailers

or via publisher

 

$6.99 ebook, $20.00 paperback

 

 

bodega head

Bodega Bay, Pacific Ocean. Photo: Richard James, coastodian.org, courtesy Bay Nature Mag.

 

The Glory of Spring

Shooting Stars

One of my favorite places to be in spring is home, especially in April as the earth is waking up. Here is a sampling of what we have seen in the past two weekends of this springtime celebration.

 

Jackrabbit

Northern California had enormous precipitation this past winter; devastating for some communities, but plentiful for all. As a result, we have had abundant new growth.

 

While there have been many gorgeous flowering fruit trees and landscaped plants in town, I especially love the spring show in the forest mountains.  Wildflowers have begun their emergence, trees express their accelerated growth, and the wildlife have new goals.

 

Indian Warrior

 

Violet-green Swallow, male; newly arrived for the spring

The bird populations change, too.

 

Year-round birds start to sing differently, busy with the activity of attracting a mate and starting a family.

 

California Quail, a year-round bird

Migratory birds that wintered here are leaving for the season, headed north to nest in their homeland. Hermit Thrushes are gone now, and every day I hear a few less Kinglets.

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

Other migratory birds that left us in fall, are gradually returning for the warm months. The Bluebirds and Violet-green Swallows have come back, vying for the nest boxes as usual; the Olive-Sided Flycatchers have not yet returned, and I haven’t heard the California Thrasher either…but they will come along when it gets a little warmer.

 

They all remind me that cold, dreary days really are going to recede.

 

And all I need to hear is the first “spic,” to know that the Black-headed Grosbeak has returned.

 

Pacific Chorus Frog

Then there’s the nightly symphonics of the Pacific Chorus Frog at the neighbor’s pond. This little frog, about the size of my thumb, in concert with thousands of others, creates such a cacophony in the dark!

 

Lately I’ve been hearing Great Horned Owls dueting at night. Click here for this owl’s call.

 

Wild Violet

During the drought, some wildflowers didn’t bloom, some oaks didn’t produce acorns. It is their way of conserving energy.

 

This year the wildflowers are abundant. But true to wildflowers, they come and go with each day, depending on the severity of the wind and rain.

 

We can have a big patch of Indian Warriors one day, and a few days later they have already started melting back into the earth.

 

Miner’s Lettuce

Some of the flowers are bright and bold, others are subtle, like Miner’s Lettuce.

 

And the poison oak–although it is beautiful in shiny new, red leaves, is already chest-high in some places, and as daunting as ever. This plant is virulent every year regardless of drought.

Poison Oak

Western Bluebird (male)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Western Fence Lizard

Every season I am reminded of the  heavenly glories of life on earth. But the hope and brightness of spring, well, it a supreme pleasure.

 

Have a happy weekend, my friends~~

 

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Easter Bunny