Quail Chicks

It’s that time of year when I have the pleasure of sharing the adorable new quail chicks born recently in our backyard. Summer in northern California in a lucky year when the little puffballs make their debut.

This past spring, pairs of quails were seen frequently throughout the day in our yard. Then around June we didn’t see them anymore. This might have been alarming if we had not known it was nesting time, when they disappear for about a month to raise a family.

Then, as expected, they appeared with their new family.

It is an absolute thrill when one day the little ones scurry into our midst.

They are difficult to capture on camera as they are extremely skittish.

Parents typically produce 12 to 16 eggs in a clutch, and often about half of those are quickly preyed on. Precocial out of necessity, chicks usually leave the nest within a day after hatching.

We have watched five chicks growing up in the past two weeks, and we keep our fingers crossed that they will all survive.

Below is the first time we saw them, taken on July 23. They’re probably about one week old here. They appeared for less than one minute.

The cotoneaster shrub you see them next to is where we think their nest was.

Twelve days later their black head stripes had matured into more recognizable quail markings. In this photo (below) you can see a small black patch on each of their crowns. In a few days this will develop into their plume, also known as a topknot.

There are many species who prey on quail eggs and chicks, so the nest is well hidden under a shrub.

Fox, coyote, raccoons and outdoor cats are a few of the predators. The American Bird Conservancy estimates outdoor cats kill “an estimated 2.4 billion birds a year.”

More info: American Bird Conservancy

Somewhere under this shrub is their nest.

We’re in a drought and have severe water restrictions, so there is no green grass this time of year. But there are plenty of seeds on the ground, which is what the chicks eat.

Mature quail are often seen pecking and scratching at the ground, but the chicks just peck until they learn how to scratch.

More info: California Quail allaboutbirds.org

Their camouflage is an important factor in survival. You can hardly make it out that there are five chicks in the photo below: three chicks on the left, two in the center, and both parents on the right.

Still staying close to the cotoneaster.

When the chicks are this young, one or both parents are invariably accompanying the young. One usually stands sentinel and watches for predators, while the other parent eats and tends to the young.

Here the mother is standing sentinel and all five chicks are underneath the bench.

This photo, below, shows a chick with dad. You can see the chick’s topknot has grown a little.

This photo, below, is two days after the above photo. The topknot is a bit bigger, breast feathers and markings are becoming more prominent. This chick is learning what its wings are about.

At first the chicks only pecked on flat ground, then eventually they started climbing onto the rocks. And then one day they got to the top of the rocks and their mother (below, right) was encouraging them to use their wings to fly into the shrub. They were reluctant but successful.

We have a bird bath that is one of the few sources of water around, and all the bird species rely on it for drinking and bathing. Every day I wondered why the parents weren’t showing the chicks the water source. Precious resource on these hot, dry days.

What I learned was they weren’t ready yet. But this week we’re getting closer to that.

A few days ago the adult male stood sentinel on the bird bath, encouraging his offspring to try this handy resource. The parents murmur in low, almost imperceptible tones to their young.

An acorn woodpecker, however, was thirsty too, and they seem to rule higher in the backyard hierarchy. The male quail quickly acquiesced.

Yesterday morning I heard the quail fly in–that distinctive whir of their wings–and briefly saw their shadows in my periphery. When I went to the window, my heart skipped a beat when I counted only three chicks.

But happy day, the other two joined up.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Summer Day, Abbotts Lagoon

Our day trip to Point Reyes this week was another pure delight, a summer day on the coast. Fifty miles inland a hot and dry July day was forming, but our visit to the coast was one of fog and blessedly cool temperatures.

The fog was so thick it was actually billowing in clouds that blew across the road. The sky had a low cloud cover and sweeping skyscapes all day.

Summer at Point Reyes National Seashore, Northern California. Migrating winter ducks and geese have not yet arrived, and it’s too early to look for migrating whales. But there’s plenty of color and beauty on this windswept coastal paradise.

It was still too early and too cold for shorts and sandals, so most visitors hadn’t yet arrived…just a few dedicated hikers quietly making their way down the trail to the sea.

The local denizens of Abbotts Lagoon, however, were busy with their day.

Upon arrival we noticed the lupine shrubs no longer have the yellow blossoms we saw last month. This is a snap of June.

And this (below) is a snap from this week, July. As you can see, this month the native shrubs have just the pods, the flowers are spent.

Coastal chaparral was colorful on this day, enhanced by the overcast sky, and was fragrantly herbaceous with the moisture.

Everything seemed to be hushed by the fog, including these Canada Geese.

The low-lying marsh area down by the boardwalk didn’t have water this time of year, but it had a thicket of marsh plants–docket (brown) and coastal hedge-nettle (pink).

Predictably there are almost always one or two black-tailed deer down at the marsh, grazing.

And sure enough, we spotted this fawn without its mother, who soon went bounding off.

Insects in the summer are different from the other seasons, and one of the stalwarts of summer is this beetle. We see them on the trail where their shiny black backs stand out against the sand. They’re about the length of a paper clip.

As we neared the sea, the trail turned to sand. It was too cold for the dragonflies who frequent this part of the trail, but a brush rabbit soon dove under cover.

Then we arrived at the shore and crossed the short walking bridge, always worth a stop to see if any creatures are underneath.

In the past we have seen river otters here, nesting swallows, a pelican carcass, and lots of different wading birds. That day it was a great blue heron hunting…and with success.

Since the spring, the beach plants have been flowering and they are different flowers every month. This month it is the gumplants that are in full bloom.

Robustly growing in large patches across the sandy beach, gumplants are named for the gummy white resin that grows in the center of each yellow flower. 

It was about a 45-minute walk back to the car, and then we were off to other parts of Point Reyes. I’ll tell you about that another time.

We were happy to spot this coyote as we drove slowly along the country road.

We also spotted a few female elk, aka cows, grazing. Point Reyes is the only National Park unit where tule elk can be found. A grassland elk found in just a few places in California, they live on a preserve in Point Reyes.

That day the cows were too far away to get a good photo, but here is a photo from another summer visit.

We see the elk every single visit on this road, Pierce Point Road. We look forward to seeing the elk next month, when the rutting (breeding) season typically begins.

There is much excitement when the bulls join up with the females. The males put on quite a show of territorial sparring with bugling and antler bashing. It lasts for a few months, so I’ll be sure to share the excitement with you.

Always a pleasure, my friends, to share Point Reyes with you.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

American Vistas

As Americans celebrate Independence Day this weekend, it’s a good time to ponder and admire the diverse habitats and picturesque vistas all contained in this one large country.

The western half of the country is dominated by the Rocky Mountains–the largest mountain system in North America–and the Pacific Ocean.

The west has far more tectonic plates at work underground than in the east, creating more rugged mountains and geologic features. West coast beaches in general tend to have more craggy rocks and chilly water currents.

Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, America’s first national park, has over half of the world’s geysers and hydrothermal features.

The west is home to expansive deserts, too. Arid regions with minimal precipitation and unique landscapes.

Much of the country’s central section, the Midwest, is flat. Once a land of vast prairies, it now hosts over 127 million acres of agriculture and has some of the richest soil in the world.

Some U.S. prairies still exist, like this one in Texas.

Bisecting the near-center of the country is the Mississippi River, the second largest river in the nation (second to the Missouri). It drains all or parts of 31 states before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Gulf of Mexico, another of our nation’s coasts, is one of humid subtropical climate bordering five states.

America’s Great Lakes, in the center of the country and eastward, form the largest group of freshwater lakes on earth. They were formed via glacial activity.

All of the Great Lakes are huge, this is just a small section of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The eastern half of the country is dominated by the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean’s coast and coastal plain. Mountains on this side of the country are older and not as high as in the west. Warmer waters and long stretches of white sand beaches enrich the eastern seaboard.

In addition to the 48 contiguous states, America also has five major island territories; a tropical island state, Hawaii; and Alaska, our largest state, in northern, arctic regions.

Alaska is the state with the most islands, 171, and the country’s tallest mountain, Denali, with a peak reaching 20,310 feet (6,190 m.).

Lots of rivers in this country too — over 250,000.

Link: Map and List of U.S. Rivers

The Columbia River, pictured below, has the largest discharge into the Pacific Ocean in North or South America.

Wetlands in the U.S. are critical habitats for improved water quality, erosion control and flood protection to name a few. They are found in every state, but there are more in the east where glaciation created an abundance of aquatic habitat. The largest wetland system in the U.S. is in Florida, the Everglades.

This is the Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin, below. I was born in this region and visiting America’s marshes and swamps is always like going home to me.

Most of our eastern nation’s southern states fall into the humid subtropical climate zones, where warmer temperatures, bayous and swamps can be found.

Cities occupy much of our country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2020 the United States has over 300 cities/towns with populations over 100,000.

It is no wonder that Americans like to flock to our 423 nationally protected parks, monuments and preserves for recreation. Our nation maintains more than 85 million acres of parks in all 50 states. Of those, there are 63 classified National Parks.

While many of America’s cities in the west are lovely…

…the cities in the east boast more national history.

The city where our Declaration of Independence was signed is Philadelphia. It served as the nation’s capital for one decade in the 1790s.

Today, Washington, D.C. is the capital city and federal district of the United States.

This week, the 2020 Census reflects a current U.S. population of 334,861,117.

Our country and its peoples have come a long way since the early days. So many different people and cultures have built this country, called it home.

We all have a lot to celebrate.

Happy Fourth!

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Bobcat

On a visit to Pt. Reyes this week, we came upon this beautiful bobcat. One of my favorite wilderness haunts in northern California, Pt. Reyes did not disappoint.

When we came upon this bobcat, it was in a field where we had seen a bobcat about two years earlier. Since the pandemic curtailed travel two years ago, we have been visiting Pt. Reyes nearly every month and we always drive slowly at this spot, every single visit, searching, scanning, always looking to get lucky with another siting. And this time…bingo.

Lynx rufus is very territorial, so it’s probably the same individual we saw earlier.

This is a female. Her body was about three feet (a meter) long; sleek and muscular.

Unlike all the other times I have observed a wild bobcat, she did not disappear right away.

She continued to prowl in the grassy field. Then she was crouched and clearly stalking something.

Athena quietly jumped out of the car and huddled behind the vehicle, using it for a partial blind as she snapped these photos.

Another minute went by and then the bobcat pounced. She came up with a large pocket gopher firmly clenched in her jaws.

Instead of heading in the opposite direction to indulge in her prize, the bobcat surprisingly walked right past us.

Females solely care for the young who are typically born in April or May, so we determined she caught this pocket gopher for her kittens.

She was on a mission to feed some hungry mouths. Probably three or four waiting for her in their den, where they will depend on her for about a year.

This photo shows her pointy lynx ears.

Here you can see her short, bobbed tail for which the cat is named. And her big feline paws are prominent, as well as her exquisite markings.

We watched in silent reverence for five precious minutes, and then she, and her fresh gopher, descended down the hill and out of sight.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Seattle’s Green Lake

I was in Seattle for the Memorial Day weekend, visiting dear friends, attending a wedding. Every morning I enjoyed a three-mile walk around the lake. It is a pleasure to share Green Lake with you.

What a treat it is to have this sparkling emerald gem of nature in the middle of a bustling cosmopolitan city.

It is a large lake, as you can see. The surface area alone is 259 acres (1.05 sq. km).

And it is a busy park, to be sure. In addition to the residents getting their daily constitutionals, there are many planned activities and numerous facilities. I liked going before 7 am when it was quieter and more subdued.

More info: Green Lake Wikipedia.

I have visited Green Lake in all seasons, but I found the end of May to be one of its most charming times with lots of bright green budding growth on trees, plush carpets of verdant grass, and many sweet signs of spring.

There were always several crew boats rowing on the water. The distant microphoned calls of the coxswain were a familiar sound in the overcast, cool morning.

One day there was an outrigger club getting set up for a race. It was raining that morning, but no one seemed to notice or care. In fact, it rained every day.

Other vessels we saw on this freshwater lake were motorboats, kayaks, and sailboats. We saw several swimmers, too.

It was a fun surprise to see Seattle’s most iconic landmark, the Space Needle, while walking the path. The city has painted the Needle in its original color, Galaxy Gold, to commemorate its 60th anniversary.

Green Lake Park has a plethora of trees–tall, stately cedar trees, willows, and many conifers and ornamentals, too. Every so often I would spot someone’s severed fishing line dangling from one of the willow trees.

One afternoon we found a tree with a special prize in it.

In spite of the path filled with strollers, dog walkers, and joggers, and the grassy areas lively with holiday picnics and friendly visits, Athena and I spotted a chickadee feeding her young nestlings. Black-capped chickadee.

The chicks were tucked inside a hole in the tree trunk (above). The hidden, invisible nest would audibly light up with the shrill voices of several demanding chicks every time a parent came in with food. It was entertaining and endearing; giant dogs and humans walked past the tree, crows too, unaware, while the two parents doggedly caught insects, delivered them and repeated the process over and over.

There are busy roadways around the entire circumference of the lake. Streets are lined with businesses and rows of houses, and all are festooned with the ubiquitous rhododendrons. Tall, fluffy bushes in a variety of cheerful colors. There’s nowhere on earth with more thriving rhododendrons than the Pacific Northwest.

Aerial view of Green Lake. Courtesy Wikipedia.

In this expansive, populated city, how refreshing for humans and wildlife to have an oasis of flora and fauna reminding us of the joy and miracles that abound in nature.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

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.