Nuptial Ants

This is a spring nature phenomenon that I find fascinating: the nuptial ant flight. It is subtle and short-lived…and a wonder to witness.

It looks like a lot of small moths flying in random directions. But on closer look, it is ants with wings. Thousands of them. And they are all emerging from the same spot in the ground.

If you look closely at the bug on the lizard’s mouth, below, you see it is an ant with wings. You can also see how the lizard has strategically positioned himself at the feast, all around him are the winged ants.

The ants with wings, also known as alates, have been selected by their ant society to perpetuate the colony. There are thousands of them because many of them will end up in a predator’s mouth, like this lucky lizard’s.

It is an important phase in insect reproduction and occurs in ants, termites, and some bee species. (I have only witnessed it in ants.)

More info: antkeepers.com

Here is a photo of a carpenter ant nest on a normal day. Worker ants doing their job. Every black dot is a busy ant.

And here is a close-up of a nest hole.

Down below and out of our sight is a highly organized ant colony, millions of ants. Their social system is elaborate with various castes of workers, soldiers and more.

It’s a different scene on the Big Day when the colony releases winged fertile males (drones) and females (queens) to mate, form new colonies. They come shooting out of the hole by the thousands.

On earth we have 22,000 different species of ants. One of the world’s leading experts on ants, E. O. Wilson, estimated that the total biomass of all the ants in the world is approximately equal to the total biomass of the entire human race.

The success of their species is attributed to their social organization and drive to collectively work to support the colony.

On the day of their nuptial flight, a day they have been building toward, the winged reproductive ants leave the nest in a powerful pursuit.

It is a perilous journey. Predators will gobble up many of them.

Lizards have long tongues they can rapidly flick out and snatch up prey, and this little guy was very practiced at the art.

Here you can see his tongue. And his little legs are stretched out in his feeding frenzy.

I have seen so many of these emergences that when I see warblers or swallows or other creatures behaving erratically and in large numbers, I stop whatever I am doing and investigate.

The emergence is fast. The flying ants come spewing out of a hole, sometimes a crack in a rock…and in a few minutes it is over.

Lizards scurry, birds swoop — all the wildlife get lined up to partake of this delicious opportunity.

Here in Northern California I have seen it the most in April, often a day or so after it has rained. But I’ve also seen it on warm fall days. It’s different for every ant species.

Last week we were enjoying tea on the deck when swallows started congregating just above us.

On most spring or summer days we see one violet-green swallow, or a pair, in some nest activity.

That day there were 20 or 30 swallows within minutes– circling and diving and air-catching the flying ants. This photo shows numerous swallows in pursuit; the ants are so tiny they cannot be seen here.

Usually the event is so chaotic that you wouldn’t guess it was an ant thing, especially since it is airborne and involves so many wings. What you see is a flurry of diaphanous wings fluttering in hundreds of different directions.

The emergence is partly based on weather conditions: not too windy or cold, and wet but not too wet.

Every black dot on these rocks is an alate or winged ant.

It never lasts more than ten minutes.

When the flying ants are no longer spewing from the ground, the predators leave, the show is over.

The males mate with the queens and their life is over. The queen chews off her wings and begins the excavation of her new chamber where she will begin laying eggs.

What a species!

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Snipe

I had the fortune of seeing a family of snipe this week. This is a bird that few people notice or know of, and some people think is imaginary.

Wilson’s Snipe, Gallinago delicata, is in the shorebird family: Scolopacidae. It is the most common snipe in North America.

They are short, pudgy birds about the size of an American Robin; usually found in marshes, with sandy coloring and markings that perfectly camouflage them.

This is the family of four we spotted while birding at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge this week.

With the tall grass and their camouflage, you can see how tricky they are to spot. They are standing (above photo) in the tall grass that spans the photo’s upper center. In the foreground on a log is a pair of resting green-winged teals.

We were on our annual visit to see the waterfowl winter migration. A spectacle that always delights.

While there, we spotted the snipes. In addition to their camouflaging, they have elusive behavior.

In over 30 years of birding, I have seen the snipe only about a half-dozen times. Spotting four at once was an unprecedented bonanza.

We were on the Refuge’s auto tour at one of the few places where we were allowed to get out of our car. We were having lunch: enjoying a bite, then scanning with the binoculars, listening to the cacophony of migrating geese and ducks, taking another bite, then looking through the spotting scope. To birders like Athena and me, this is heaven.

In our initial 360-degree binocular scan of the area, we spotted the snipes and enjoyed close to an hour there.

They never changed positions in that hour, except an occasional head lift.

This is the scene without extra lenses.

They use their long bill to probe into the mud for food. Their diet consists of insect larvae and insects like dragonflies, beetles and moths; and invertebrates like snails and worms.

Two special features of that marvelous bill: it is flexible and thereby good for probing; and the snipe can swallow small prey without pulling their bill from the mud.

John James Audubon wrote an extensive observation about the snipe–it’s behavior, migration, flight, breeding, and more.

Link: Audubon’s Birds of America, American Snipe

They do not breed in Northern California, and I have never seen the mating displays. But I have read they have a spectacular flight dance.

Here is Audubon’s description of the flight dance of a snipe pair:

It often happens that before these birds depart in spring, many are already mated. The birds are then met with in meadows or on low grounds, and, by being on the spot before sunrise, you may see both mount high in the air in a spiral manner, now with continuous beats of the wings, now in short sailings, until more than a hundred yards high, when they whirl round each other with extreme velocity, and dance as it were to their own music; for at this juncture, and during the space of five or six minutes, you hear rolling notes mingling together, each more or less distinct….”

Audubon’s snipe drawing, Plate 243, is below. It was completed in 1835. This is an online partial drawing.

“American Snipe” by John J. Audubon, Plate 243. Courtesy audubon.org

In Audubon’s time (1785-1851), the bird was called the American Snipe. At that time, Alexander Wilson, a Scottish-American ornithologist and illustrator, was the first to prove the snipe here in America was different than the Common Snipe of Europe. So it was dubbed the American Snipe.

Over the years it would be named the Common Snipe, and then more recently it was further classified into two bird species, the most common American Snipe being named Wilson’s Snipe.

Why is it an imaginary bird to some people?

Because there is an age-old trick dating back to the mid-1800s called the Snipe hunt. As a rite-of-passage trick, elders tell a young person how to hunt for snipe (or some other non-existing creature), and then leave them alone in the woods with an empty bag and instructions for catching it. It’s a fool’s errand that tricks young ones into goofy behavior alone in the woods while everyone else runs away. Many youngsters, after the gig is up, think there is no such thing as a snipe.

As we sat eating lunch, basking in the sunshine and the thrill of being near four snipes, a few people walked by. We invited them to take a look in the scope at the snipe.

Their enthusiastic reactions and comments indicated they knew of the snipe but had rarely seen one. All were in awe.

This is a photo taken through the spotting scope.

We spotted nearly 40 different bird species that day, and thousands and thousands of migrating waterfowl visiting Northern California from as far north as Russia’s East Siberian Sea and North America’s Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. An incredible migration that I will tell you more about soon.

Fortunately for us, snipes are not imaginary. They are old and ancient friends of Homo sapiens. The name may change occasionally, but the bird has been occupying marsh shorelines for well over 187 years.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Range Map for Wilson's Snipe
Range map Gallinago delicata. Ora=Breeding; Yel=Migration; Pur=Year-round; Blue=Nonbreeding. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org.

Our Winter Thrushes

We are fortunate in Northern California to have four species of thrushes join us for the winter months. Here’s a brief look at these beautiful birds.

Although Northern California is not warm in the winter, it is temperate enough that some bird species migrate here. We have driving rain and icy nights, but the sun comes out often and when it does, the birds leave their roosts in search of food.

For the thrushes, berries are a big draw.

Our four thrush species are “true thrushes,” all from the family Turidae: American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, and Western Bluebird.

Many years, especially in the last decade, if we are in a drought and haven’t had enough autumn rain, the berries don’t form. They start to grow, but without rain the berries shrivel up and drop to the ground.

But this past autumn we had plenty of rain, and consequently this winter there are berries everywhere. And thrushes everywhere.

Red berries on toyon, pyracantha, and cotoneaster shrubs; orange berries on the madrone trees.

American Robins, Turdus migratorius, are here year-round. In warm months we see them in pairs or small groups. In winter we have our local residents plus the migrants from Canada and Alaska, resulting in gloriously huge flocks.

Sometimes there will be 10 or 20 of them, rustling in the trees and bushes, plucking berries and chuckling as they engage in their lunch party. They are a big bird with whirring wingbeats, easy to hear and see.

Other times they can be flying high overhead in a flock of 60-100, often crossing the sky at the end of the day getting in one last meal before bedtime. The sky is absolutely filled with them. It’s one of my favorite winter sights, and I stop in my tracks when I hear them overhead…gaze up.

The hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus) and varied thrushes (Ixoreus naevius) are migrants, spend the winter here but only if there are berries. There are many years when they arrive in autumn, having flown long distances from Canada and northern states. If they discover only shriveled berries, they leave within a day and don’t return until next season.

With the gift of rain this year, both the hermit and varied thrushes have spent the winter.

Varied thrushes are west coast birds. They spend the winter here on the coast from Northern California all the way up to northern British Columbia.

On Christmas Day in 2015 we were in a Northern California giant redwood forest when we spotted this female popping around in the undergrowth.

In the eastern parts of the country, bird aficionados associate the hermit thrushes with their melodious flute-like song. The song, however, is part of their breeding ceremonials, and has nothing to do with winter foraging.

The call of the hermit here in winter is simply “chup-chup.” The varied thrush sound is a unique two-toned call that cuts through the forest on a rainy winter day.

Hermit Thrush sound, click here.

Varied Thrush sound, click here.

The bluebirds. Many people don’t realize bluebirds are thrushes, in the Turidae family.

Sialia mexicana, western bluebirds, live here year-round. This photo was taken on a March afternoon.

In spring they breed and nest, but in the winter they are searching for insects and berries.

This past summer I wrote a post about a pair of bluebirds who were nesting in the carcass of a burned tree. Some readers may remember this. (New Life in a Dead Tree.)

The brood was successful and when the chicks were big enough, the family of four left the nest and went out into the world.

Imagine what a thrill it was this past week when we returned to that meadow, on a short walk between rains, and saw the family. They perched very near to their home spot, the dead tree, chirped a cheerful hello to us, and then off they went in search of a meal.

There is something very special about the winter birds. When the flowers are gone and landscapes are stark and temperatures make you shiver, it is heartwarming to have a little aviary friend by your side.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Wild Jekyll Island

It was a fun day romping on this barrier island–hiking through native forests, observing wildlife, and delighting in shoreline discoveries.

The State of Georgia has 14 barrier islands lining the Atlantic coast. They are owned and managed by different entities; vary in size and accessibility. A map at the end outlines all the islands.

Barrier islands are coastal landforms shaped by tides, waves, wind, sand and other elements. They protect the coastline by forming a barrier, thereby blocking ocean waves and wind from directly hitting the mainland.

Salt marshes and maritime forests are important natural features of the barrier islands.

Like all the Georgia barrier islands, Jekyll Island has a rich history of human settlement going back hundreds of years.

But the beauty of Jekyll Island today lies in its ownership and laws. The State of Georgia owns this island, and state laws restrict development to only 35%.

This allows 65% of the island for natural habitat. Stewards of the land have done a great job of protecting the wilderness from human development.

Roughly seven miles long (11 km) and two miles wide (3 km), it is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the eastern side, and a tidal creek and salt marsh on the western side. It is 5,700 acres (2,307 ha). Map below.

I was impressed with the sand dunes and native sea grass on Jekyll’s oceanside beaches. Often American beaches have been completely cleared of native habitat, succumbing to human establishments like high rises and amusement parks. There are about nine hotels and a few restaurants, but the natural landscape prevails.

The beaches have been preserved with native flora, providing habitat and protected nesting for endangered sea turtles and migrating shorebirds.

We spent a few hours at Driftwood Beach on the north end. It is adjacent to a protected marsh where we saw many thriving waders, songbirds and shorebirds.

The island has many miles of maritime forests, as well. Maritime live oak forests are the dominant woods in Georgia’s southern barrier islands. In addition to the live oaks, so beautifully draped with Spanish moss, there is a variety of hardwood and pine trees.

The understory is alive with unique lichen, ferns, wild blueberries, and the ubiquitous saw palmettos.

We explored Tupelo Trail and Horton Pond. Even in October it was very hot and humid, but still it was an easy hike under a towering canopy complete with mosquitoes, shimmering spider webs and many species of foraging birds.

Signs warned of alligators, but our reptilian experiences were highlighted that day with numerous lizards and skinks, not alligators.

Horton Pond–named after Major William Horton, a land owner here in the 1740s–is a testament to the island’s ongoing conservation efforts. With fund-raising donations and the Jekyll Island Authority, the pond was updated in 2014.

It has a handsome observation deck, providing great views of the entire pond, while protecting the wild denizens.

We saw woodpeckers, songbirds, anhingas, and herons in the pond’s surrounding trees, and dozens of native softshell turtles swimming in the naturally tanic waters.

This softshell turtle is taking advantage of the floating raft anchored in the pond.

We had a great time on the north tip of the island, too. Clam Creek Road offers picnicking and wildlife viewing and an abundant plethora of tidal wildlife. I could easily and joyously have spent the entire day here.

The parking lot at Clam Creek was mellow and not teeming with cars and people, affording us the opportunity to enjoy this boat-tailed grackle bathing (and singing) in a puddle.

There is an extensive fishing pier, here, too. Built in 1969, it is a large T-shaped concrete structure that juts 360 feet (110 m) into the waters of St. Simons Sound. I’ve read there’s good fishing: red drum, spotted seatrout, Spanish mackerel, flounder, shark, and more, as well as shrimp and blue crabs.

In the photo below you can see what the pier looks like at most moments. It was low tide, and seemingly quiet and low-key, but there was a lot going on under the surface.

We were having a great time spotting shorebirds and hermit crabs, and all the wildlife who live in this plentiful world.

And then an incredible event happened.

A super giant cargo ship quietly passed by.

The Bravery Ace is 623 feet (190 m) long and 104 feet (32 m) wide. It’s called a Vehicles Carrier, transports thousands of cars and trucks.

You can see how big it is compared to the pier. It stirred the waters as it slowly labored by.

Although we stopped and stared at this magnificent vessel, the gulls didn’t stop picking the dead crabs apart and the shorebirds were undeterred in their feeding frenzy.

I hope to one day return to this Georgia gem. But in the meantime, I have sweet memories of a precious day on Jekyll Island.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Two Jekyll Island websites: Wikipedia and Jekyll Island.com

Sherpa Guides | Georgia | Coast | Jekyll Island
Courtesy Sherpa Guides.com

Georgia’s 14 Barrier Islands, Courtesy herbmiles.com

Turtles and Tortoises

There are 360 species of turtles and tortoises on our planet, and they all fall under the same family Order: Testudines. These reptiles are unique creatures with many fascinating features.

We will look at a few of the major similarities and differences between turtles and tortoises. Nomenclature for these animals varies among countries; we won’t go into that here.

The fundamental difference between turtles and tortoises is where they live–land or water–and how their bodies have evolved to accommodate their environment.

Some of the ways turtles and tortoises are alike: both are cold-blooded (like all reptiles), lay their eggs on land, and have air-breathing lungs.

Just like their lizard cousins, turtles and tortoises need the sun to thermoregulate. Many of us have witnessed this sight before.

The carapaces (shells) of turtles and tortoises differ somewhat. But for both, the carapace is a permanent body part, it is never shed.

There are many of Earth’s creatures that have carapaces: armadillos, shell fish, crabs, most mollusks, beetles, and more.

But turtles and tortoises are the only reptiles with a shell.

Derived from bone, the carapace is permanently connected to the spine and ribs. During development, the ribs grow sideways and enter the animal’s skin, and then develop into broad, flat plates. They form their own personal armor.

More info: Turtle Wikipedia and Tortoise Wikipedia

Interesting Chart showing common species of turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.

And a few of the ways turtles and tortoises differ….

A turtle’s carapace is relatively flat and thin to help with diving and swimming. Small turtles have feet that are webbed or clawed to aid in swimming and climbing onto rocks.

Large turtles have flippers, as you can see (below).

This turtle, below, doesn’t have a full, hard shell (like most). It is classified as a softshell turtle because the carapace is not fully bone. In the center it has a layer of bone, while the edges are made of cartilage and are leathery. It allows them to move more flexibly on muddy lake bottoms, and more quickly on land.

Sea turtles are one of my favorite creatures on earth. There are seven species in the world. In the U.S. we have six species and all are listed as endangered or threatened. Much work has been done to protect our big sea turtles, but there is still a lot left to do to ensure their survival.

Just like the smaller turtles, sea turtles live mostly in the water, coming to shore to bask in the sunshine and/or lay eggs in the sand.

Under water the sea turtles glide with beauty, ease and speed. They are omnivores and spend their submerged time foraging on sea grass, like this one below, as well as jellies and invertebrates.

But turtles breathe air and must surface at regular intervals to refill their lungs.

They labor on land, moving slowly and awkwardly. They use their flippers as best they can, but the earth is not water.

Sea turtles are about four feet long (1.2 m) and weigh up to 400 pounds (181 kg). They generally live about 80 years.

So turtles are omnivores and built to swim and flourish in the water.

Conversely, tortoises are strictly land creatures. They cannot swim.

Their carapaces are heavy and domed for protection against predators. Their legs are short and sturdy to accommodate the heft. Their feet are padded and stumpy, and the front legs are scaled to protect the tortoise while burrowing.

We found this gopher tortoise while visiting the Jacksonville Botanical Gardens. It was about the size of a dinner plate. We were surprised at how quickly it was moving because tortoises are generally very slow. Things to do.

There is dispute about how far back into the ages turtles and tortoises go. But it doesn’t take a scientist to look at their ancient faces and see they are very old creatures.

And that brings us to the longest living land animal in the world: the Giant Tortoise.

While many of the Giant Tortoise species are now extinct, we still have a few living species on remote islands in the Seychelles and Galapagos.

I was fortunate to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos Islands, where they have a breeding program and conservation practices for the perpetuation of the Giant Tortoise. To date there are 16 separate populations on ten of the largest Galapagos Islands.

We spent the afternoon in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island (Galapagos), where we came upon several of these most mesmerizing and magnificent creatures.

They have an average lifespan of 90-100 years, though there are records of some living longer, up to 188 years. They are herbivores, foraging on grasses, cacti, and fruit; and move very, very slowly.

We patiently and appreciatively watched this Galapagos Tortoise on the trail. It took about 20 minutes for it to travel 60 feet (18 m).

They are the Granddaddy of all tortoises, some weighing up to 919 pounds (417 kg).

That day it was quiet in the highland forest, and the tortoises were docile. Except for one sound.

They can pull their heads into their carapaces, like many tortoises and turtles, and when they do the most astounding thing happens. This slow and quiet animal releases a loud hissing sound.

The hiss is the result of the individual releasing the air in its lungs to make room inside the shell for the head.

We came upon these three Galapagos Tortoises sleeping in the mud, while ducks paddled and frigatebirds circled overhead.

The sleeping tortoises looked like boulders.

Every few minutes, a frigatebird, one of Earth’s largest sea birds, would dip its bill into the pond and take a sip.

For more info about Turtle and Tortoises differences click here — Turtle vs. Tortoise.

Turtles and tortoises, several hundred different species on our planet. They use the sun to create their energy and walk through life with a shell on their back. That is one unusual and beautiful being.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Georgia Insects

Visiting an unfamiliar region yields a plethora of new wildlife species to discover. Here are a dozen insect species we came upon recently while adventuring in the State of Georgia.

In many places in the northern hemisphere, the weather in October brings increasingly cold weather and less insects. But in the southern states the cold weather is often not as extreme or as long-lasting.

Last month in southeast Georgia, it was in the Fahrenheit 80s and 90s (27-32 Celsius) and insects were still abundant.

Butterflies are one of our planet’s most decorated insects, and the numerous species in Georgia did not disappoint.

The Gulf Fritillary, photographed above, appeared often, lighting on a variety of flowers. Like so many butterflies, the markings on the dorsal (top) side and the ventral (underside) are different, boasting two unique looks on the same individual.

Another exotic southern butterfly is the Zebra Longwing.

I have seen this species in Texas and Florida on previous trips, and was delighted to find about a dozen of them fluttering among the weeds behind the Dairy Queen. I’ve read they roost in groups of up to 60 at night, for protection.

The insect I was most fascinated with on this trip was the Cattail Toothpick Grasshopper. They have unusually pointy heads and long, thin bodies, much like a toothpick.

One day I had the joy of watching this grasshopper species in the marsh grass. I was walking along the dock when I noticed one effortlessly sail from one thin marsh reed to another. I was mesmerized as it danced across the reeds and out of sight.

Dragonflies, like butterflies, are insects that offer a kaleidoscope of bright colors and interesting markings. Add to that their compound eyes and shimmery wings, and you have one of Earth’s masterpieces.

We were spotting birds at a stagnant-looking pond covered with duckweed, when this flamboyant pink dragonfly, below, greeted us. A roseate skimmer.

Then minutes after the Roseate Dragonfly visit, a Roseate Spoonbill flew overhead. What a rosy day.

While on a boat tour in the Okefenokee Swamp, this Eastern Pondhawk Dragonfly, below, kept landing next to my feet. The boat was fiberglass with a flat bottom, and I cannot imagine the dragonfly particularly liked the fiberglass. So maybe she liked the boat’s vibration, or maybe she just felt like hitching a ride.

Other Georgia dragonflies that greeted us were the Eastern Amberwing with its dazzling gossamer red wings…

… and the dashing blue dasher.

One day for about five minutes, this handsome grasshopper landed on the patio. The vertical brown body part is his wings.

I found this wasp especially beautiful in its striking geometric markings.

And here are a few more butterflies, because we can never have too many butterflies in this world.

A pair of mating Cassius Blue Butterflies and, in the subsequent photo, a Cloudless Sulphur.

Lastly, one of my favorite butterflies while in Georgia: the Palamedes Swallowtail Butterfly. You can see how big it is in comparison to the Plumbago flowers. Swallowtail butterflies, from the Papilionidae family, are some of the largest butterflies on our planet.

Insects are integral to our planet. Some resources say that insects comprise 80-90% of the animal life forms on Earth.

I still have Georgia reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals to share with you. But for now, we can find glory in these most amazing insects.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Spanish Moss

Trees draped with Spanish moss are a common sight in the American South. But to many of us who live without it, it is an enchanting phenomenon.

Spanish moss, or Tillandsia usneoides, is an epiphyte, an organism often dubbed “airplant” for the way it derives its nutrients not from soil but from air. Other epiphytes include lichen, orchids and bromeliads.

The moss does not steal nutrients from the host tree, so it is not a parasite.

And, as the guides readily say in the Okefenokee Swamp, it’s not Spanish and it’s not a moss.

It is native to the Southeast U.S. and tropical Americas, and is a bromeliad.

More info: Spanish Moss Wikipedia

In Georgia, where all these photos are from, you see it languidly cloaked on oaks and bald cypress the most, but other trees don it too.

Unlike many plants, it has no roots. Instead, it absorbs nutrients and moisture through minute scales, called Trichomes. The cupped scales trap water until the plant can absorb it. It can absorb ten times its weight in water. I’ve included a magnified photo, at the end, showing the scales.

When it’s dry, Spanish moss is gray, but when it’s wet and holding water, it has a gray-green look to it.

For propagating, Spanish moss has tiny seeds with feathery appendages, like dandelion seeds, that float through the air spreading the seeds. Wind and animals do most of the distributing.

Over time the moss accumulates, like in the above photos. But it starts out as mere tendrils. On the right side of this photo below you see threads of it, so delicate the sun shines through it.

Some creatures–bats, snakes, frogs, spiders and insects–live in the moss.

Others use it for cover.

Birds use it for nesting material.

Humans have been finding uses for Spanish moss for centuries. Clothing, rope, stuffing for pillows and mattresses, as healing teas, for binding material in construction, and more. It was exported to England in the early 19th century for upholstery stuffing, and used by car makers for the same purpose in the early 20th century.

Typically the moss was soaked in water and then dried in the sun, removing its inhabitants. Once it was fully dried it was ready to use.

Today it is primarily used as mulch for gardening, or in crafts and floral arrangements.

A plant that glows in the sun, thrives without roots, gets its nutrients from the air, and is home to a myriad of wildlife. That’s a plant to be celebrated.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Spanish moss fragment
Courtesy Univ. of Houston. uh.edu

Spooky Nights

No tricks this Halloween, but I do have a treat for you. I’ll take you on some spooky night walks here, and you won’t get hurt because it’s only photographs.

You are perfectly safe, for example, from this hyena.

Going into the wilderness at night is a great way to see the nocturnal creatures. They come out of their holes and caves and hiding places, and start their evening hunt. It can, however, be a bit unsettling for humans.

Darkness adds to the fright factor, of course. When it’s completely dark and you can see nothing but beady eyes in the grass, it can put you on edge. Those bright eyes could be a harmless night bird…

or a pair of leopards hungrily searching for dinner.

When I first saw this creature (below) in Australia, I gasped, thinking it was a very large rat.

It is a bandicoot, in the marsupial family, and not Rodentia at all. They are nocturnal omnivores.

Whether you’re in a rainforest or on the open plains, if it is dark, the night sounds can be bone-chilling. High-pitched screeching, deep howls and roars are hair-raising.

Hyenas, with their maniacal whoops and growls and laughs, are the opposite of a lullaby.

But worse: the feel of a bat’s wings fluttering inches from the face. It’s happened to me twice.

Bats have excellent echolocation skills, and are not hampered by their poor eyesight. Both times I was outdoors in a very dark place and a bat came so close I could feel and hear the whir of its wings. Both times I had a similar reaction: I was momentarily vexed, then thrilled.

The truth is, I love bats. I like all these animals I have mentioned. They’re all a part of this incredible earth, and even when there’s a moment of fright, it passes quickly.

I find it a privilege to be in the presence of an owl; but they, too, can have some tricks up their winged sleeves.

Owls have specialized feathers and are truly silent in their flight. There have been times when I heard an owl hoot on one side of me, and then suddenly I heard the bird on my other side. It soundlessly and invisibly flew right past me.

While owls are relatively quiet, here’s an owl that can have an alarming screech.

While barn owls shriek, there is another bird I’ve heard that not only shrieks, it also squeals like a pig.

The oilbird.

Enter a dark cave in a rainforest where oilbirds live, and this is what you’ll hear: press this link for a live recording.

Post I wrote Oilbirds in Trinidad

Even if it’s not nighttime, a forest is naturally dark due to the heavy tree canopy.

This big vulture gave me a start. I think I heard him shout, “Boo!”

And then there’s the Amazon, the rainforest of all rainforests. Camping there was a sleepless event, a place where daylight could not come fast enough.

I’ve had a rat come tumbling through the thatched roof into our hut, cockroaches as big as a chapstick scampering around my toothbrush, and howling monkeys that sounded like a Category 5 hurricane. All in the dark.

Big ol’ spiders in the Amazon too.

Even the trees in rainforests are threatening. Look at the thorns on this tree trunk!

They evolve with thorns for protection, which makes sense, but it doesn’t help if you are trying to steady yourself in deep mud.

So when the sun finally arrives, it is usually a relief. Because everything looks better in the daytime.

Except, maybe, for this marine iguana. Day or night, it has a look that will freeze you in place.

So there you go, my friends. A lot of spooky nights for you this Halloween, with none of the heart-thumping frights and gasps. Always remember, daylight is just around the corner.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless noted.

Driftwood Beach

Located on the U.S. Atlantic coast, Driftwood Beach immediately strikes you as a special place. Although it is one of many beaches in Georgia’s barrier islands, it stands out for the large, toppled trees that cover the sandy landscape.

Ocean tides and storms continually shape this Jekyll Island beach. Over the years the sand has eroded; removing the foundation for the roots to take hold, causing the trees to fall over.

I visited this unusual beach last week, following a family celebration.

The name implies ocean-drifted wood, but the trees that dominate the sandy expanse are not actually driftwood. They are prostrate pine, oak, and palm trees. This tree below, probably once an oak, still has the rootball intact.

The nature of coastal barrier islands is protection. There are approximately 14 barrier islands along the coast of Georgia, all of them coastal landforms created by waves and tidal action. The small islands, like Jekyll Island, take the brunt of the ocean’s wrath, protecting the mainland.

Jekyll Island is only seven miles (11 km) long and 1.5 miles (2.4 km) wide. While there are some hotels and human developments from various eras, there is a handsome array of natural sand dunes, marshes and wild habitats, attracting a wide array of wildlife.

My sister Nan spotted this skink on the trail leading to Driftwood Beach.

While many of the dead trees lie on the sand, there are also some dead ones that haven’t yet fallen. Giant, whole trees are standing, but lifeless.

My sister beside this tree demonstrates how huge the dead, standing tree is. Someday it will fall, but for now it remains solidly anchored in this spot.

There were dozens of dead trees dominating the beach. It was a unique sight. Most trees remained big and strong, not broken apart, and in spite of being leafless, they retained a proud elegance in their shapely limbs and roots.

Beachgoers strolled around the trees, some climbed on the trees, some sunbathed beside them, and children built sand castles in the fine, wet sand. Some people even host weddings here.

Osprey and pelicans sailed by. Willets and sandpipers scurried on the sand and rocks, while wading birds foraged on the adjacent marsh.

Across the waterway (St. Simons Sound) you can see another barrier island, St. Simon’s Island. Through this channel, cargo ships deliver goods, primarily automobiles. The yellow, arched structure seen from Jekyll Island is a giant crane. It’s one of the first things you see when you come out of the palmetto-studded trail and look out to sea.

The crane is straddling the shipwreck of the Golden Ray, a cargo ship that was carrying 4,200 cars when it capsized two years ago. The ship was improperly loaded and tipped over. Fortunately there were no fatalities, and clean-up of the shipwreck is nearly complete. The rusty heap to the right of the crane is what is left, and being cut, of the Golden Ray.

More Info: Golden Ray Wikipedia

More Info: Golden Isles of Georgia Wikipedia

We had a glorious day of ease and pleasure on Jekyll Island, watching birds, turtles, crabs, passing ships and ever-moving tides. But I’ll tell you more about this beautiful island another time.

For now, we’ll just bask in the briny air, expansive ocean, and lazing fallen trees of Driftwood Beach.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

A Salute to Summer

As we say farewell to summer, here is a small sample of the wildlife who entertained us these past few months. Summer provided us with a celebrated array of birds, insects, mammals and reptiles.

At the beginning of the season in May, we watched dozens of birds nesting around our property.

We found these bluebird eggs inside one of our nest boxes.

In addition to the usual resident nesters–swallows, bluebirds, juncos, chickadees, titmice, jays, towhees, wrens, and more–we hosted numerous migrant species.

Flycatchers, an often-overlooked migrant bird, were in abundance.

This Pacific-slope flycatcher mother (below, in center) vigilantly protected her nest and brood for many weeks. She chose a completely burned tree in which to nest, probably for uninterrupted visibility of predators.

This flycatcher, like the other migrant birds, had an industrious summer routine. They arrived in May, prepared a nest and filled it with eggs; then assisted their fledglings to become strong and independent. In August they all headed back home.

On cue with the summer routine, black-headed Grosbeaks arrived, and produced young ones.

The violet-green swallows arrived in April, vying with the bluebirds for nest box real estate. By July the sky was filled with soaring, acrobatic juveniles.

We welcomed several warbler species as well. Although we don’t have the same volume of spring migrating warblers on the west coast as the east coast or Midwest, every year we have several species who migrate through in the shoulder seasons, like this hermit warbler and orange-crowned warbler.

They come in when we turn on the yard sprinkler, a favorite summer pastime for all of us.

Throughout the summer a pair of sibling Cooper’s hawks, born here in spring, were prevalent in our backyard. I wrote about them in a previous post: Cooper’s Hawks, The Next Generation.

Their new prowess started out clumsy, but quickly became skilled, intimidating the wise and wary California quail from nesting on our property. Fortunately we saw large quail coveys with chicks all over our mountain.

We didn’t see as many snakes this year, but we had an abundance of Western fence lizards. Now, in early September, we have lots of little pinky-sized baby lizards skittering across the dust and rocks.

Living in drought here in Northern California, we have had our difficulties with fire and smoke lately. So far, the worst fires are a couple hundred miles north of us. It is a tense and smoky situation for us, but disastrous for our friends in the north.

During this current drought, water is a precious commodity. Our humble water tray offerings attract an animated parade of wildlife, day and night.

A bobcat comes through several nights a week.

Other regular night creatures include great horned owls, who frequently serenade us with duets, and deafening cicada choruses throughout every night. Dark dawns bring us individual bats silently zig-zagging the sky.

For comical daytime entertainment, we have a quirky gray squirrel who has taken to covering his back and head with his tail. He does it all the time.

Maybe he’s just an odd dude, or maybe he’s decided to use his tail as an umbrella to shield from the blazing sun. Whatever his story, we love him. We call him Davy, for his resemblance to a Davy Crockett hat.

Brush rabbits appreciate the water tray too.

It’s been so hot and dry lately that birds we don’t ordinarily see at the water tray came in this summer for drinks and baths. The outdoor camera captures this screech owl at the water tray regularly.

Yesterday I noticed this Cooper’s hawk at the water tray for an hour. We have also watched him vigorously bathing here. On sizzling hot days, he stands right in the water, probably regulating his body temperature.

I do love summer for the plethora of wildlife and their activities, but I am looking forward to the fall, too. Cooler temperatures and some rain to douse the earth would be dreamy.

But what a lively and lovely summer it has been.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.