An Afternoon at the Chobe River

Botswana has the largest population of elephants in the world at 130,000 individuals. It is in the center of Southern Africa, and landlocked.

Elephant populations, as most people are aware, are struggling for survival. This species of elephant, the African bush elephant, is endangered.

We had the fortune of observing many elephants on land while there, and then one special day we watched three bulls in a face-off in the middle of the Chobe River.

All photos here are taken in one area of the Chobe on one afternoon.

It was the dry season (early August), a time when elephants gather here for the water.

Plenty of other wildlife congregate at the river, too. Cape Buffaloes, Storks, Zebra, Warthogs and more.

Below is the goliath heron, the world’s largest heron with a wingspan of over 6 feet (2 m). There’s a cormorant in the grass, too.

More info:

Botswana Wikipedia

Chobe River Wikipedia

Chobe National Park Wikipedia

A male elephant is known to drink 60 gallons of water a day, and as much as 26 gallons of water at a time. So this is prime real estate–lots of water in a landlocked country.

As we were slowly cruising along on the river, we came upon three bull elephants in a territorial dispute. Our guide cut the engine and we quietly floated, watched for about 15 minutes.

It all started when one bull left the shore and walked deep into the middle of the river.

When a second bull followed, and then another, the Lead Bull became agitated.

After a few minutes, the agitated Lead Bull turned around and shook his gargantuan head and raised his trunk, demonstrating his dominance.

Sparring elephants on land confront each other by raising their heads as high as possible; they also swat and spar one another with their tusks or trunks.  Flaring ears, trumpeting and lots of kicked-up dust. Usually the taller one dominates, especially if his tusks are bigger. 

We didn’t know what to expect with the bulls so deeply surrounded by water.

The Lead Bull turned around several times, to scare them off, but the other two did not relent. 

Then he turned and faced them, walked directly to the closest bull. 

They pressed heads…twisted trunks…locked tusks.

There was a lot of big splashing and occasionally one head or another slipped under the water.

It was very exciting and a little intimidating being nearby. Three angry bull elephants duking it out. I wondered if one of them might drown the other?

But this wasn’t a television nature program with days of film footage and accompanying, escalating music. This was real life–15 minutes on the Chobe where there was currently plenty of water for everyone.

Somewhat anticlimactically, the two bulls retreated back to shore and the Lead Bull crossed the river alone.

After the elephants had settled their tiff, our guide started up the engine and off we went.

I wouldn’t say peace was restored with all the crocodiles lining the shore, but the drama had subsided for the moment.

To me, it was as dreamy as life gets.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Every Day is Earth Day

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the first Earth Day, established in 1970. Although April 22, 1970 was the first Earth Day, environmentalism began long before that day, and it continues today.

Below are three outstanding examples of early American pioneers in environmentalism. For each I have provided a brief overview, and a few links and photos.

More info about Earth Day 2023:

Rachel Carson…

…published Silent Spring in 1962, a book that forewarns readers how the world will be silenced of bird song if the indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides continues. She was a marine biologist and writer, presented scientific evidence of the damage from pesticides.

She began her research in the mid-1940s on the new pesticides, one being DDT. At the same time, a contemporary of hers, Paul Hermann Müller, was awarded the 1948 Nobel prize for his 1939 discovery of insecticidal qualities in DDT in the control of vector diseases such as malaria.

Hers was an uphill battle with sharp opposition. But she was not alone in her efforts. Early environmentalists gathered data for decades, recording and demonstrating the gradual disappearance of new generations of birds whose eggshells were no longer strong enough to develop.

Eventually, in 1972 DDT was banned from the United States.

Today we have Rachel Carson and her fellow environmentalists to thank for the presence of the bald eagle, brown pelican, osprey, peregrine falcon and other birds that had been so severely affected by DDT that they almost went extinct…but they didn’t.


Silent Spring Wikipedia

Rachel Carson Wikipedia

DDT Report by US Environmental Protection Agency, History and Status, 2023

Save the Bay…

… is a nonprofit organization started in 1961 by three women living in the San Francisco Bay Area. At that time the San Francisco Bay was showing alarming signs of shrinking and the so-called solution was to cut off the top of nearby San Bruno Mountain and put it into the bay. They rallied the community and began a fundraising campaign to stop landfill in the bay.

Esther Gulick, Kay Kerr and Sylvia McLaughlin’s organization was successful in saving the bay from landfill. As it grew bigger and stronger, tangential environmental organizations were formed with the purpose of protecting the bay and all of its surroundings.

Today, humans, plants and animals thrive in and alongside the San Francisco Bay; and Save the Bay remains a strong presence in this urban environment by restoring wetlands, addressing rising seas, pollution and climate impacts.


Save the Bay Non-Profit

Save the Bay Wikipedia

Marjory Stoneman Douglas…

…was a Florida journalist and conservationist known for her staunch defense of the Everglades against efforts to drain it and reclaim land for development. At the age of 79, she became a tireless crusader for the preservation and restoration of South Florida.

In the mid-20th century with the advent of air conditioning, sunny, warm Florida experienced rapid demographic and economic growth. Government and private entities were clearing away the natural estuarine habitats and making room for human development.

Her book, The Everglades: River of Grass (1947) and grassroots efforts to stop human development, polluting, and water diversion of the Everglades began awareness that continues to this day.

Today the Everglades Foundation is dedicated to restoring and protecting the Everglades ecosystem as the climate changes and the resource of water remains as precious as when she began her efforts.


Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wikipedia

The Everglades Foundation

Fortunately there are thousands more stories of individuals, organizations, and lawmakers around the world working tirelessly to protect our planet for future generations of people and wildlife.

We have come a long way but there is always more to do. For today, take a moment to breathe in fresh air and ponder at how wonderful that is.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Tiptoe Through the Tulips

The humble tulip, for many of us, is a flower of intense color that brightens up the earth after a cold winter of dark, inclement days and months.

The two tulip photos below are springtime scenes from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

A walk down my street this week reveals the daffodils fading and other spring flowers peaking, but we do not see many tulips here in Northern California. There are one or two, here and there.

Most home and professional gardeners here treat tulips as annuals because our winters aren’t cold enough. Tulips require prolonged exposure to cold weather in order to stimulate flowering in spring. Dedicated home gardeners dig up the bulbs and put them in cold storage to replant.

These are tulips, below, we found on a spring day outside the San Francisco Hyatt.

For a deeper appreciation of the tulip, let’s ahead “across the pond” to Europe and Asia.

Native tulips still grow wild in the mountainous regions of Central Asia (see map at end). Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have endemic tulips, but they are dwindling into endangered status.

The majority of tulips we see today are cultivated.

It is thought that tulips, members of the lily family, were probably cultivated in Persia (now Iran) in the 10th century.

By the 15th century, they were a prized flower and considered to be a symbol of abundance and indulgence.

Northern European diplomats to the Ottoman court observed them and reported on them. In 1573, Carolus Clusius, a pioneering botanist, planted and cultivated tulips at the Vienna Imperial Botanical Gardens; and by 1594 the tulips were on the market and the tulip craze had begun.

The Netherlands, then called the Dutch Republic, was one of the world’s leading economic and financial powers in the 17th century and became the leading trader in tulips.

Between 1634 and 1637, the tulip frenzy escalated. Collectors began paying more and more for a single bulb.

This painting below depicts the rare Semper Augustus variety. At the height of the craze, one bulb sold for 13000 florins, the price of a decent house at the time. (Painting courtesy Wikipedia, anonymous artist)

“Tulip mania” as it was called, could not be sustained, and by 1637 it had collapsed.

Unless you have studied economics and learned about this early form of speculative trading, tulips are not something most of us equate to a devastating 17th century market frenzy that destroyed many people.

More info: Tulip Wikipedia and Wild Tulips Fauna & Flora International

Today the Netherlands remains the Tulip Capital of the World.

Visitors to Amsterdam can find the city flower market on the Singel canal where glasshouses on fixed barges are bursting with flowers.

But a far bigger spring tourist attraction are the formal gardens and nearby tulip fields at Keukenhof flower gardens in Lisse.

This link is a good post about visiting Keukenhof: Best Tulip Fields in the Netherlands

Tulip festivals remain a star attraction all over the world, not just in the Netherlands but in England, Australia, the U.S. and Canada, India and many other countries.

The tulip, sweet tulip, has a bewitching history, attracts folks to the fields from all over the world, and delights us on a blustery spring day.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athen Alexander.

Tulip Distribution: red=natural, yellow=introduced. Courtesy Wikipedia.

A Snowy Day in Joshua Tree

This was our second visit to Joshua Tree National Park, the previous one was for a half-day 12 years ago.

This park has a sacredness to it, and I felt it the first time, which is why we were back again.

But this second visit was really special, not only because I have matured over the years and was willing to move slower and listen more carefully to the rocks, trees, and plants around me, but because on our third and final day we were blanketed for six hours in fresh-fallen snow.

Snow doesn’t come often to southern California. We’ve had crazy weather the past two months in California.

The park is in a sprawling desert with six mountain ranges. It was first declared a space worth preserving in 1936 and then more recently, in 1994, when an act of U.S. Congress brought more space and more protection.

It is so big that it encompasses two deserts: the Colorado and the Mojave.

Like much of California, Joshua Tree NP lies near tectonic plates that have been uplifting and moving mountains for millions of years.

More info: Joshua Tree National Park Wikipedia

The eastern side of the park, with elevations below 3,000′, is in the Colorado Desert. Low elevation plants grow here; and less snow was falling here.

And the other part, the Mohave Desert part, is higher in elevation (above 3,000′) and has a vast community of Joshua trees. Here the snow came down in big, wet flakes and never stopped for the entire day.

It kept falling, so silently, and covering the Joshua trees. Yucca brevifolia are not technically trees, they are succulents in the agave (Agavaceae) family.

The winds were strong, sometimes the snow was horizontal, but the “trees” never swayed, as if they were made for all this weather adversity. And they are. They have thrived through centuries of drought, and yet they also prefer occasional cold temperatures.

The snow was sticking and could be shaped. There were not many people out in this frigid weather, but I saw a little girl, about two or three years old–she was the only person I saw with a snowball. She had it gripped in her little hand and was gnawing on it with abandon.

We saw indistinct tracks in the snow from wildlife and a few hardy birds.

Athena, with her numerous cameras and lenses, was oblivious to the freezing temperatures and cutting wind, out there snapping away, recording the beauty.

Gradually, over the course of the day as the snow continued to fall, the desert transformed. The hard, brown, dry ground vanished; replaced by a carpet of fluffy whiteness.

The cacti all across the desert floor, normally foreboding with their millions of spikey spines, were rounding out with each hour of snow, turning into soft white blobs.

Most magical of all were the Joshua trees. Right before my eyes these other-worldly trees with one trunk and a dozen or so branches were turning into people-like figures, bodies with arms.

As the snow kept falling, shrouding their pointy leaves and rugged trunks, they became flexible dancers, reaching their arms out, meeting the fresh snow with grace and rhythm.

The rocky outcroppings, usually towering and unapproachable, softened too. The gaps and cracks in the rocks filled in with snow, reshaping and accenting their loveliest features.

Eventually the mountains and boulders disappeared in a white-out. The sky blackened and the storm intensified.

And just as we were exiting the park, the never-closed gates had to be closed, due to shifting snow and dangerous road conditions.

I suspect those Joshua trees kept on dancing–celebrating the endless open space, the cleansing wind and refreshing snow.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Coyote gets a Gopher

We struck gold one day at Point Reyes recently, when we watched a coyote dramatically dig a gopher out of its hole.

At first the coyote was sniffing around in that canine way, randomly checking out his favorite spots in the grassy field. We were on a broad ridge, a windy ridge, with the Pacific Ocean to our left and Drakes Bay to the right.

He was quite far away, ambling closer.

It was mid-afternoon when the road is fairly busy, we couldn’t just stop and watch. Fortunately there was a pause in traffic, and I was able to stop the car and quickly pull over; the berm was flat and wide and not too soft. There was a large electronic traffic sign on the roadside we could park in front of without impeding traffic or attracting attention.

Other cars whizzed by while we watched the cool and silent drama unfold.

Athena captured these photos from the car’s open window.

We marveled at his lustrous coat, so thick. It was January and he had on his winter coat. Beautiful bushy tail.

It is a sad thing to see wild mammals who have suffered from drought, starvation or injury; visible ribs, wavering gait, ghostly countenance.

This wild mammal was robust and confident.

We had only been watching about five minutes when he found something–he stood tense and alert, engaged. His nose was, literally, to the ground.

Started digging.

He dug so feverishly that soon his front legs were deep inside the hole. Digging, relentless and urgent digging.

The coyote was very aware of us, but had more important things on his mind. We stayed in the car and let him be.

He continued to dig…and then it all stopped. We couldn’t see at first what he was crouched over.

He was bent over something. Then he came out of the hole and lifted his head, gnawed and chomped. We saw a limp, muddy lump between his jaws.

Got a gopher.

It was covered with mud, very black mud, must’ve been deep in the burrow.

Canis latrans are primarily carnivorous and have a wide diet; small, burrowing mammals are one of their common prey. He had probably injured the gopher, trapped it.

The whole event lasted about two minutes.

Native American folklore calls coyote “the trickster.”

And there was something to this, because out of nowhere, just after he finished his last bite, a second coyote appeared.

It was obvious the two of them knew each other, there was no strain, tension or posturing.

As they left us and walked off, our gopher warrior was easily recognizable: he kept licking his chops, reliving his tasty snack.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Early Spring Wonders

Our Northern California spring days have been a joy. Come join me for a morning walk. It’s a little chilly so button up.

It is in the low Fahrenheit 30s every morning (-1C) and by mid-day reaches about 55F (13C). The sunshine’s warmth opens up the buds a little bit more each day.

The early spring flowers, like narcissus paper whites and daffodils, are out now, adding an occasional heady scent to the path.

The flowering quince is in bloom, another early spring flowering delight.

Deciduous oaks and ornamental gingkos are still leafless, but they have promising buds. We walk along a creek where there are many willow trees. It is a glorious sight to see so many willow branches covered with cottony catkins…pussy willows.

Our early morning walks reveal frost on the grass and rooftops, but as we reach the third and final mile, the grass has already become dewy and a popular spot for robins.

American robins are often thought of as spring harbingers in American culture; but that does not ring true for those of us who live in mild climates. Robins live here in northern California throughout the winter. I have seen them in large flocks of 100 a few times, but usually it’s flocks of 25-30.

Almost every day I am now hearing western bluebirds, even very early when it is still frosty cold.

Reptiles and amphibians are waking up too. Sometimes on a very warm day a tiny western fence lizard will be sunning on a rock. Only the tiny ones are out right now, they have less body to charge up than the adult lizards. Adults are still hibernating underground.

The spring calls of occasional frogs and toads ribbiting around the creeks can also be heard.

Some of the birds are changing their repertoire, singing their spring songs.

The oak titmouse is changing voices from its scratchy winter call into melodious tunes of spring.

Listen below:

Winter Oak Titmouse call

Spring Oak Titmouse call

Lately not a day goes by without the red-shouldered hawks proclaiming propriety with their piercing calls.

Last week we spotted one of my favorite spring arrivals in the backyard: the Allen’s hummingbird. They spend their winters in central Mexico and are now returning here to Northern California to breed. So far I have only seen the males; the females will come soon. The Allen’s are creating quite a stir for the year-round resident Anna’s hummingbirds, and the fierce battles have begun.

We came upon this Anna’s hummingbird feasting on the flowers of a bolted vegetable plant.

It’s a little too early for the riot of spring flowers and dancing butterflies, but it is a marvelous time to take in the bounties of the new spring season.

Written by Jet Aliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

So Many Elephant Seals

It was a chilly but sunny day last week when we had the fortune of spending time with a colony of elephant seals.

There are only about a dozen spots in the world where northern elephant seals breed, and Point Reyes in Northern California is one of them.

They spend most of their lives at sea, only coming to land for breeding.

At Point Reyes, the bulls (males) arrive in December and the cows (females) arrive in January.

The pups had recently been born and there was a bonanza of excitement on the day we visited, with this colony numbering over 120 individuals spread out across the short beach.

There were mostly mothers and pups, and a couple dozen bulls made their presence known.

There were orange barricades up, keeping people at a distance to protect the seals; and this sign, below, with the seal count. We were on the southwest side of Drakes Beach at the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center.

Always with elephant seals, the first thing you are instantly aware of is their gargantuan size. The bulls are noticeably larger, but the cows are also formidably large.

Quick Facts from National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration:

Weight: 1,300 – 4,400 pounds (590-1,996 kg)

Length: 10-13 feet (3-4 m)

Adult male elephant seals have a large inflatable nose, or proboscis, that overhangs the lower lip resembling an elephant trunk, thus its name. The proboscis is his tool for amplifying sounds in female competitions.

Mirounga angustirostris nearly went extinct in the late 1800s from over-harvesting. Their blubber is oil-rich. They had been absent from Point Reyes for more than 150 years; then in the 1970s elephant seals returned to the Point Reyes beaches, and in 1981 a breeding pair was discovered.

They are protected now and the California population is continuing to grow at around 6% per year.

More info:

Northern Elephant Seal Wikipedia and Northern Elephant Seals National Park Service

As of last week, the mothers were still nursing and the pups, in that newborn way, were demanding, screaming.

You can see in the two photos below they are dark black and wrinkled, having been recently born.

This pup, below front, has learned how to sit up.

The pups would scream and whimper for a few minutes, and then figure out how to get over to their mother for sustenance.

The mothers were laid out, soaking up the sunshine. I liked watching this mother, below, who was apparently hot. Every once in a while she languidly dug her front flipper into the sand and swept some cooling sand onto her back. You can see the morsels of sand on her back and the depression she has made in the sand on the right.

You can also see her whiskers in this photo (above). Living at sea for most of their days and foraging at great depths, elephant seals use these whiskers (aka vibrissae) to fish in complete darkness, sensing the location of prey.

Often a little itch was scratched with the flipper claws.

The bulls were fun to watch too. Occasionally one would awake and prop himself up, lifting the front of his body, and proclaiming his superiority with a territorial roar or two. There were rumblings and roars that always turned my head.

But every single time I watched, it was all more bluster than anything. They are so heavy and awkward on land, they would plop across the sand for about three steps and then collapse, lay back down and go to sleep.

I’ve read that males have brutal fights in their hierarchical society, but we were witnessing a different stage of life when there were few males and the females were busy with pups.

There was an overflow lagoon where a few males swam around. You can see a male in the photo below, just right of the center.

This male, below, hauled out of the lagoon and found himself a comfortable spot in the parking lot.

Crashing waves, brisk winds, briny sea aromas, and squawking gulls are all a thrill when we go to the beach on a winter day. Watching active elephant seals–roaring, nursing or squealing–and it all makes for an absolutely super day.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Land of the Hummingbird

As we head deeper into winter in the Northern Hemisphere, let’s take a few minutes to frolic in the tropics. Trinidad is called Land of the Hummingbird–here are some of the beautiful birds and butterflies we have seen there.

Trinidad is an island in the Caribbean Sea less than 10 miles (16km) off South America’s Venezuelan coast.

Read more about Trinidad here: Trinidad Wikipedia.

Although Trinidad’s primary industry is oil and gas, parts of the island are rainforest and plantations. You can see from this photo below how extensive the tree canopy is.

And now we will go below the canopy to find thriving birds in every color of the rainbow. We’ll start with a few of the hummingbirds.

We have 15 species of hummingbirds living in our very large country of America. In the small dual-island nation of Trinidad-Tobago, with an area of less than 2,000 sq. miles (5,131 km2), there are more hummingbird species than in all the U.S.: 18.

This hummingbird’s iridescent crown and gorget feathers lit up with a simple turn of his head in the perfect light. Its name is “copper-rumped”…but who’s looking at the rump?

Four additional hummingbird species are below; Blue-chinned Sapphire, White-necked Jacobin, Tufted Coquette, and White-chested Emerald.

This tufted coquette below, with his orange mohawk and polka dots, has bits of pollen on the end of his bill. He was tiny and zipping around at lightning speed…and very busy.

You may not be able to see it, but this white-chested emerald hummingbird has a bit of his tongue sticking out.

There were many native, red-flowered bushes on the trail (below), attractive to hummingbirds.

But it wasn’t just hummingbirds we found in Trinidad, there was an abundance of other colorful species as well.

Scarlet ibis live in Trinidad, roosting at night on small coastal islands. I wrote a post recently that included Trinidad’s scarlet ibis. Link: Celebrating Ibis.

And there were many honeycreeper species, too. In Hawaii, honeycreepers take the place of hummingbirds in the avian world. But in Trinidad they have both.

This male purple honeycreeper is absolutely show-stopping. I found it difficult to take the binoculars down and keep walking–I would stop and stare for the longest time.

And the female of the same species, often close by, is also colorful and beautiful. Green legs!

And then there’s the green honeycreeper which is another stunner. The bird’s name is “green” but it’s really turquoise.

With all the nectar plants around, there were of course butterflies. Interestingly, the two butterfly species below both have bird names: the owl butterfly and the scarlet peacock, below that.

The owl butterfly below is not as colorful as some butterflies, but the “eye” marking is easily discernable. Many scientists posit that the eyespot is an evolutionary tool of mimicry, resembling eyes of predators that hunt by sight; while others say the conspicuous contrast in markings deters predators.

It wouldn’t be right to highlight the wild nectar feeders without including at least one bat. Trinidad has approximately 70 bat species, an incredible amount.

One night at dusk we spotted a stream of bats flying out from under our lodge building. We went back every night thereafter for a bat bonanza.

And lastly, here are two songbirds to sing to you of the color and beauty here on earth.

The violaceous euphonia with his furry yellow forehead.

And the ubiquitous bananaquit, often found at our outdoor breakfast table trying to sneak a little sugar.

I hope this tickle of the tropics helped warm you, my friends.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Foggy Morning

My morning walks this week have been blessedly cool and shrouded in fog…please join me.

In Northern California this time of year the nights have become longer and cooler, and fog lingers in our valley until about 9 a.m.

I love it like this. Droplets in the air and fog dripping from the leaves means moisture…a pleasant respite from the monthslong drought typical of our summers. It brings us hope for rainy months in the winter ahead.

The local deer, the black-tailed species, quietly graze in the hush of the fog. They are a sub-species of mule deer. (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus)

In the summer the wild turkeys were often under cover as they raised their vulnerable chicks. But now they’re out in the mornings in family flocks, feeding on the ground seeds.

We do have changing colored leaves on the west coast in autumn, though not as prominent as our American friends in the east.

Color comes out in the liquidambar trees, pyracantha and other berries, deciduous oaks and still-flowering ornamental gardens.

The California buckeye trees (Aesculus californica), an endemic and the only buckeye native to the state, are completely leafless already. For a month they have had no leaves, baring only their dangling poisonous seeds, also known as horse chestnuts.

On my walk I found a fallen buckeye and brought it home to crack open and show you.

Gradually the morning quietness perked up with the chatter of songbirds as the shrouded sunshine began its rise.

With the autumn weather new songbird migrants have arrived from the north, including the Oregon dark-eyed junco subspecies, coming to join the resident juncos. Junco hyemalis.

The clear, plaintive notes of a white-crowned sparrow cut through all the fog…but the loud and distinctive honking of the Canada Geese quickly drowned it out.

The geese congregate every morning in this field. As we walked closer, we witnessed smaller groups descending through the fog, seeing them long after hearing them.

Eventually the sun started to burn off the fog and a patch of blue sky peeked through here and there, until its light and warmth had pierced the heavy marine layer.

The sun brightened the garden colors and highlighted the friendliest scarecrow I have ever seen.

This time of year, chili peppers can be seen in many gardens.

This golden-crowned sparrow had a moment of glory when the sun brightened his namesake crown.

As our final steps brought us to the front door, an Anna’s hummingbird bid us adieu.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

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

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.