NatureLog - My Traveling Blog
Animals Through My Traveling Lens
Enjoy the Travel & Birdwatcher Series, Species Spotlights and more observations from nature
This time of year is so exciting to me. Many winter migrants have arrived and I’m always eager to set out early mornings to see who has arrived overnight or over the last week. Do you know which birds come through your own area this time of year? If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, you will see birds who have flown south to warmer climates. They are either stopping through or staying through the winter. The benefit of stepping out or looking out of your window for these birds is multi-fold. Realizing there is a whole ecosystem of life outside our own helps draw us into the present moment – dissolving our troubling or stressful thoughts.
The birds that you see have risked their lives, skipped many meals, flown many hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles, to arrive. Spending your morning with a loved one, exploring – either through the window or at a local park – is a nice way to enjoy your day. My mother regularly peaks out her window and shows her great-grandchildren the many birds that come through. She’s thrilled that her great-granddaughter, Alaina, proudly ensures other people know about the birds she encounters now, too. What a blessing - a gift - to a young child who can enjoy the wonders of nature.
I love being a traveling birdwatcher but I still avidly watch my own yard every day. In my own backyard this winter I’ve discovered at least 2 new species I’ve not seen here before. We’ve lived in the same house over 10 years, so seeing new birds this winter was amazing! It’s likely due to a slight change in habitat these new species seek. Our garden has more growth from new low shrubs and purple sage this year and a clearing from trees that we had to cut down due to disease. We’ve seen Golden-crowned Sparrows and Orange-crowned Warblers, the latter of which I never even knew existed.
I’ve also been heading out along the San Francisco Bay’s many parks and to Monterey Bay, never disappointed. Right now on San Francisco Bay, we’re seeing Northern Shovelers, Gadwalls, Green-winged Teals, Blue-winged Teals, Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, Ruddy Ducks, and the latest arrivals, Lesser Scaup. The irony: I’ve seen SO MANY Northern Shovelers over the years at Palo Alto Baylands that I almost ignore them now. But this year, as they took to the skies or rose up on their haunches, I discovered even more colors on their plumage. They are even more captivating when their wings are open! Now my new obsession: being in the right spot, in the right light, at the right time, and the right angle with their back towards me, to catch this same beauty aflight. So far, only blurry pictures.... Luckily, I have the whole winter to keep trying! ;-)
Where will you go this winter to explore? Whether you are a traveling birdwatcher or stick close to home, will you take your grandkids, your sons and daughters, your husband or wife, your mother or father, your best friend and go explore? As John Muir once said....
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
I was blessed this week to go from seeing the beautiful butterflies in my own backyard to those on the East Coast. Aside from the butterflies in the backyard of the home where I was staying, New Quarter Park in Williamsburg, Virginia has planted a very large butterfly field – including over 130 milkweed plants upon which Monarchs rely. It was here that I found myself surrounded by butterflies and dragonflies.
What the butterflies taught me this week:
If it’s still spring or summer where you are, you might consider wandering out to see how many butterfly varieties you can find. What do you see? How many patterns can you find on their wings? Don’t forget about the patterns on their bodies. Are their antennae different colors from their bodies and wings? What colors are their eyes? What else might you learn from and about them? If it’s fall or winter where you are, don’t despair! You might use this time to start planning how you could attract these gorgeous and welcome distractions to your surrounds in the spring. Happy butterfly dreams ….
When do you get the answers that you need in your life’s journey? Is it when you sleep? In messages through others? Through your intuition? I’ve learned that I receive it through all of the above - and through nature. Lately I have been exploring whether to pursue macro photography. I had recently rented 2 macro lenses to test and had been so disappointed. I learned that being 100% reliant on a tripod and being right on top of my subject matter was not for me. I didn’t want to scare the animals and insects of my fascination, and my camera gear is already heavy and cumbersome when I travel without necessitating a tripod, too. This week, while visiting family on the East Coast, I had rented one final lens before I was going to decide whether to give up my quest.
Arriving on the East Coast, I was exhausted. With a three hour drive to my destination ahead, and only an hour or so of sleep on my overnight redeye flight, it’s 6 am, and I’m asking myself: “What was I thinking taking a redeye?” With just 1 hour left in the drive, we stopped for an hour to wait for my nephew. At wit’s end, irritable, and just ready to be done with this drive is precisely when the magic happened….
I began to notice an odd phenomenon each time we stopped on the drive: a single dragonfly would appear, and would fly back and forth across the car, front to back, front to back. Now stopped on the side of the road awaiting my nephew, 2 things happened: first, an insect resembling a bee flew into the back window where I sat and just looked at me. Hmmm…. Is he staring at me out of fear? He doesn't seem to be in any hurry to move away from me. So I gingerly grabbed my camera and took several shots. Then I ever so gently ushered him back out into nature where he belonged.
Then, not one but two dragonflies landed on branches just beside me at the car’s edge. And they just stared at me. Yes – they looked right at me. Feeling confident that any moment they would fly off, I just sat and enjoyed their beauty in this special moment. But they didn’t leave. So again, I pulled out my camera, gingerly stepped out of the car, and began taking pictures. Still, they just sat. After I had snapped what seemed to be 100's of pictures, they flew up – and returned and sat back down in a new position. And again I took numerous shots of their new angles. And so it went on like this – the entire hour we waited for my nephew. Now, you might be thinking, “It’s just coincidence that they landed to charge in the sun at the very moment you pulled up in the car”. Except that they weren’t sitting in the sun. In many cases, I don’t even bother shooting in the sun for the myriad problems it poses in photography. Nope – this was just pure magic. I began to realize that they were perhaps here for another reason: to prove a point to me.
As the week continued and this happened again and again (on my father’s balcony as I walked by, on my father’s porch where I was sitting, on a nearby limb and then a lily pad at a friend’s house where I was visiting), I reflected that these were no coincidences. Macro photography was here to stay in my life, and the dragonflies were going to show me precisely how it was possible – with my existing lens and the 3d rental that I used for the shots that week.....
Thank you, dragonflies – (and thank you to my nephew for taking so awfully long to get ready.) I shall do my very best to remember this “intentional magic” the next time I start to get irritated in life's unappreciated moments when it is not moving as fast as I'd prefer. I hope that you will, too……
Have you stepped outside into nature today? Have you even stepped outside of your brain and the swirl of thoughts rushing through it? These thoughts keep us in a stressed, overwhelmed state of being. Nature grounds us, bringing us back into the present moment like nothing else. And even if you live in a condo, apartment, or otherwise feel you’re surrounded by concrete, you’ve likely got a neighborhood park just a short hop away. In fact, recently I was in Taipei, Taiwan on business and was delighted to discover, thanks to new friends, a beautiful park full of tropical birds just awaiting our visit. And this past week, content to be in my own backyard, there was so much going on that pulled me out of the stresses of work and into a more serene, peaceful state:
With all of this entertainment, who needs TV? ;-)
Remember to take the time to get out and experience what’s happening in your own proverbial backyard. And, if all else fails, close your eyes, breathe deeply, and enjoy a moment of peace to prepare for the coming week …..
For the last month and half, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons and Double-crested Cormorants have been working day and night to build their nests along the shore in Morro Bay State Park. Now is a wonderful time to see all of the activity. Not knowing the Cormorants well, one visitor remarked to me that she had mistakenly presumed there were wild boar in the area. I laughed in full understanding of the mistaken identity of the Cormorants calls and explained that, the sounds of the Egrets and Herons, and why so much vocal activity right now.
If you have the chance to visit Morro Bay, or any rookery like those around Clear Lake or elsewhere in California and across the U.S., look WAY up in the tops of the trees. There you'll see the Herons and Egrets, delicately but awkwardly balancing on the tree limb close to their very large nests. The Cormorants can typically be found in bald trees, and thus are much easier to spot. And of course as mentioned, they all have quite distinctive calls which make them easier to spot.
I’ve been very fortunate this year to see a wide variety of Cormorants – all a short distance from home. It’s been quite some time since I’ve been able to get out and see the various migrants or even the birds in their full breeding plumage. For years as a wildlife rehabilitator, any spring free-time was spent caring for newborns of all varieties, the latest being harbor seal pups. It has of course all been worth it(!), but I’m also quite excited to have a little time to explore this time of year.
And speaking of the spring.... seeing the breeding plumage is such a delight – especially on the Brandt’s Cormorants. Blue being my favorite color, I can’t help being spell-bound by their blue plumage this time of year, and their gorgeous blue eyes. Brandt’s Cormorants – endemic to North America, and only found along the Pacific Coast - frequent our area for breeding. Unfortunately they've been at risk from a number of disturbances, including recreational marine use and commercial fishing. I usually see them arriving in the Slough, skimming the water to grab seagrass and other materials for their nests, built atop the channel markers. I laugh at myself when they're here: in my kayak, fighting the current around the channel markers, just to get a glimpse of their beautiful blue beauty, around and around again. I'm ever so careful not to disturb, but just close enough to relish their beauty this time of the year. If I get a photo, it’s a bonus.
And while we so often see Double-crested Cormorants from our kayaks, this year I was fortunate to see them in their breeding plumage. And LOTS of them. In one of our local reservoirs recently, I counted a group of over 90(!) Double-crested (that was just those on the surface). I don’t recall ever having seen so many in one location. Clearly our Reservoir is a breeding ground and I was delighted to have a chance to see them rearing their young. I laughed at the site of the breeding plumage, with all of the head feathers sporadically shooting out of their heads, some with more wisps than others. It's a funny sight.
Earlier this spring, I also happened upon a couple of lone Pelagic Cormorants in Monterey. While I’ve seen Pelagics, it's rare and I had to do a double-take to make sure it was indeed a Cormorant. Very sleek and slender, this little Cormorant is the smallest of the Cormorants. Because the largest concentration of Pelagics are up in Alaska and not nearby, I do stop and relish seeing them. Besides their small size, you can easily spot them aflight – the only Cormorant with a big white circle on their backs.
And so I’ve been enjoying the changing of the seasons, the familiar friends like the Cormorants that come our way, and the changes they exhibit during these special times of the year. As the late American essayist, John Burroughs, has written, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” What will you find in nature that will soothe and heal you? I encourage you to open your doors and go find out….
For the last few weeks, I’ve enjoyed the transiting Allen’s Hummingbirds as they migrate through the area on their way south. I always look forward to their arrival. The males arrive much earlier than the females and this year, we saw very few males. The males typically only visit ~3 to 4 July every year. But this year we saw a shift in the date of arrivals of all migrating hummingbirds, so we presumed they, too, would be late. Unfortunately for us, the only opportune time for a family vacation overlapped the typical male Allens’ arrivals, so regardless of when they did transit, we seemed to miss them. However, the volume of female Allens transiting through this year are helping make up for my disappointment. Interestingly, for the better part of a week, I thought the same female was frequenting our backyard. However later review of my photos revealed it was indeed 2 different females. So who knows just how many female Allens we’ve been witnessing over the last few weeks. Regardless, it has been a joy to watch them and be entertained by them. One female stayed for only ~24-48 hours and ruthlessly chased every single hummingbird away – from BOTH large feeders. Another stationed herself in a tree above one feeder and chased all hummers away from just the one feeder. Another positioned herself under the pergola on the draped lights – again darting after every hungry hummer at that feeder. Through it all, we’re reminded of those striking differences between Allens and the other hummingbirds: the shorter beaks, the constant view of their tongues, and of course their vocalizations. I don’t ever recall Allens migrating through as late as September but, as long as it still means a safe migration for them, I’m thrilled to see the constant flow of new little visitors.
Meanwhile, we’re still enjoying all of the quite young new Black-chinned and Annas arrivals of the season. The feeders and the backyard sage and other flowers are ablaze with little fast-moving wings. There are so many that at dusk it’s like a hummingbird highway – we look out above and around us as we happen upon the back patio at this critical time. We know this stage, too, is temporary – soon our little Black-chinned friends will migrate south, and the Annas will disperse to establish their own territories and we’ll see fewer at the feeders and across the backyard. So for now, I relish this time with them – taking in their beauty, their antics, and just their mere presence that cheers me even on my most stressful day of work. Thank you to all for making our lives so much richer, vibrant, and joyful…..and Godspeed for the migration ahead.
Please remember to phone your nearest wildlife rehabilitator if you find any bird or other animal in distress, injured, or otherwise in need of care. And may you discover and relish the many treasures that nature bestows on you in your own backyards - regardless of season.....
“Could it be?”, I thought to myself, as I drove down into the campground area. “It looks like a dark sign from here, but….. it’s moving ….. Yes, I believe it is!!!!!!!” At long last, I had found that colorful, beautiful-in-its-own way, large, endangered bird of Australia: the Southern Cassowary. In each of 3 trips to Far North Queensland (FNQ - Aussies’ name for this northern area of the state), I had hoped to see one. Daintree Village, Daintree Rainforest - tantalized by the “frequent sightings” comments and road signs displayed along the way in the Rainforest. I scanned the edges of the Daintree River at the ferry. My friend, Margit, in the Atherton Tablelands shared stories with me of the Cassowaries they see from time to time in their area. She sent me to Mount Hypipamee National Park where she’d recently seen a Cassowary family coming and going near the parking lot. All to no avail. So on this, my third trip, I stayed in Kuranda and visited Barron Falls Estate for a meandering ATV ride where Cassowaries frequented their fruit orchards – with a ~95% sighting rate.
But alas, on this day, for this eager fan, it was not to happen. And so I continued my drive down to one of my 2 last options – the first, the town of Mission Beach. I booked into a B&B there, passing all of the Cassowary warning signs along my drive, keeping my eyes peeled left and right, front and back. Nothing. I drove the next day and scanned the beaches where they are known to frequent, and took a hike where they had informational exhibits about, and occasional sightings of, the infamous bird. Still, no Cassowary. As I awoke my last morning of this visit to FNQ, I had one option left enroute back to Cairns airport: Etty Bay. I’d heard from Margit and others that THIS was the place to see a Cassowary. But how many times had I heard that of the other areas? I had booked a late flight out of Cairns to give myself ample time, but still, to say that I was hopeful at this point would be overstating my feelings. But what did I have to lose other than a ~20 minute detour to my drive? So here I was, driving into this tiny little area, essentially no more than a lovely campground on the water (mental note: come back here and enjoy the views when I have more time).
Driving down the descent into the campground, looking onto this lovely beach, I spotted something dark. Again, my initial thought: “Could it be?” But then corrected myself that it must be a sign I just simply couldn’t yet read. Yet as I continued my slow drive, it indeed moved! And so here he or she was – the Southern Cassowary!!! At long last! I parked and watched her walk along the beach, picking up fruit along the ground here and there. This is the bird from which all of the signs warn you to stay back, for fear of attack. Ambling through the campground, she walked past Aussies who acted as if it was just another day at the campground. I finally laughed out loud in front of one Aussie gent, noting my humor in his ‘just a usual day at the park’ demeanor as she walked right past him. He laughed and sat and chatted with me for some time about Cassowaries and the respect for this wild bird which goes on its way, without human bother here. Music to my ears. As with any encounter with wildlife, it’s contextual – don’t feed them and habituate them. Don’t corner them or appear to threaten their young. And so here I was: face to face with this amazing bird as she walked straight toward me, looked right at me ever so nonchalantly, and made a slight right to walk around my car where I sat in admiration. I was elated….touched….emotional. Pinching myself that this had just happened.
Why all of the fuss about the Cassowary? The Southern Cassowary is found only in this part of Australia, and is, sadly, endangered. I’ve heard all of my friends in FNQ lament the birds’ status and challenges. Apparently only 20–25% of their original habitat remains here - habitat loss and fragmentation cited in studies as the primary reasons for that loss. Looking specifically at birds who had perished, the studies found vehicle strikes accounted for 55% of their deaths, and dog attacks another 18% - thus the road signs asking drivers to slow down and keep them safe. Other Cassowary species exist in Papua New Guinea and nearby islands but apparently even less is known about those species. [Read more about the studies and the Cassowary here.]
Meanwhile, I’m still left thinking about that special moment, after long last, when we were eye to eye: does she know how much I admire her species and wish for them a safe and continued success? I’d like to think so….
When have you had the moment lately to reap the rewards of coming ‘eye to eye’ with nature? You don’t have to have endangered species in your backyard to fully appreciate them, and allow those special encounters to ground you, lower your blood pressure, and give you an otherwise more positive outlook. What are you waiting for? ….
As always, please contact your local wildlife rehabilitator if you find a bird or newborn chick, or any animal, in need.
One of the things that I love about Bee Eaters is how fast they must be to actually catch a bee. And to think that they have resistance to their stings is amazing to me. So, despite how much I appreciate bees and the role that they play in our ecosystem, I typically sit and watch in fascination as the Bee Eaters swiftly grab their prey, faster than the human eye can process.
Today, I stopped to watch them amidst the off and on rains through the part of the rainforest here in Mission Beach, Queensland. Far North Queensland (FNQ) has a good share of Bee Eaters but you’re not always guaranteed to see them. I didn’t know if I would today, given the weather. But I came upon a couple of them happily hunting right outside of the B&B where I am staying. So I sat in fascination to see if there were any bugs available on such a wet day. I’d watch them come and go with what seemed to be not much luck – beaks empty, and so they’d try again – heads turning this way and that, as if they were seeing something, and any second ready for the kill. After hopes of catching a photo of one mid-flight (man and camera vs. swifter bird), and careening my neck almost straight up to watch, I had just decided to give up and do something a bit less taxing when it happened…. the little Bee Eater who had been so patient with his human stalker, caught a big green butterfly.
I guess I hadn’t thought about the prospect of a butterfly up to this point – much less about how much difficulty the Bee Eater would have in getting it down. And so I just let my camera take in all of the action as I watched in amazement how he tried to flick it (presumably to kill it?), swat it against the wire (for leverage to swallow?), dropped it and went flying to recover it, tried repeatedly to swallow only to watch it come right back up, until finally,.....
...the last little bit of the butterfly finally disappeared.
I then realized, quite amused, that all of the many swallows who had been flying past me for the last hour, had all stopped – and had found a seat on the wire to watch all of the theatrics. Were they hoping he would share? That he would drop his meal and give them a go? Or were they just as entertained as I was to see who would win this long battle for the finish?
I watched to see if the little Bee Eater would now take off. I don’t know if I expected the equivalent of a human after a very heavy meal. Would this be enough to be the final meal of the day? No – no drama, no real reaction, no indication of satiation – it was back to business. And so I watched as he once again turned his head left and right …. right back into the action for the next flying meal of the afternoon.
This weekend in Whistler, Canada, I was thrilled to watch a black bear as he or she happily chomped away at dandelions while locals and tourists alike meandered by him. They were walking, cycling, jogging - doing what humans do. Meanwhile, the bear was contentedly doing what bears naturally do - enjoying the shoots of plants along our walking trails until the berries begin to emerge and they can feast on those. It hasn't been too many months since the bears emerged from their winter hibernation, but they've clearly been doing well on these plants. Every bear I encountered over the weekend looked just as healthy as this guy. And so it was, as he enjoyed his meal trailside, only casually glancing at us humans every once in awhile. To say he looked in any way curious about what we were doing would be an overstatement. He was quite focused on his delicious meal and really couldn't be bothered with the trivialities of daily human life.
Do you ever stop and cherish the opportunity to live among the wildlife in your local area? Whether it's the tiniest hummingbird or these big guys, be sure to stop and take it in. Enjoy these moments. Nature grounds us. It helps us get out of our heads and into our hearts. It calms us, giving us a sense of peace and well-being. If you want the scientific evidence of that, here's a good Nat Geo article on the subject.
I wish for you peace and well-being, and an opportunity to get out and bring a little nature into your life. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Adopt the pace of Nature. Her secret is patience." I can always use a little more of that in my life.....
Pamela, Eyes4Nature's proprietor, enjoying life out in the field among the animals and the peacefulness of nature.