Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Flame in the Canyon

Here's a migration tale from near my home in Portal, Arizona.

Huge numbers of Rufous Hummingbirds cruise into southeastern Arizona during their fall migration, arriving after the summer monsoons have inspired a fall bloom, lush in good years. As the hummers arrive, the agaves which pepper the mountain slopes come into flower, providing nectar and pollen for hummingbirds, orioles and nectar bats.

Flame in the Canyon: Rufous Hummingbird 
(Watercolor by Narca)

It's possible to sit at the southern terminus of a small mountain range (as I have done at San Luis Pass in the Animas Mountains), and watch a stream of hummingbirds reach the end of the agaves, then launch themselves over the intervening grasslands, heading south for the winter.

Watching the hummingbirds flow south, watching the Vs of geese overhead, seeing the pulse of salmon returning up their natal streams to breed, we are immersed in the great cycles of planetary life.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An Ordinary Marvel

If we open our eyes and unstop our ears, earth presents us with such ordinary, everyyear wonders, like the routine migrations of animals.

One ancient cycle––the great seasonal pulse of migrating birds––can strike a chord of deep awe in those of us who are fortunate to witness it. Who hasn't rushed outdoors when the primordial rattle of cranes or cry of swans seeps through the windows of daily life? After a long, dark, frozen winter, whose heart hasn't leapt at the appearance of the first hummingbird of the spring, as the tiny glittering miracle hovers for an instant at the kitchen window? 

Scarlet Tanager in Dogwood (Acrylics by Narca)

Over the years, Costa Rica has gifted our tour groups with riveting experiences of migration. Consider: it is April in the lowland rainforest of Selva Verde. A blustery spring storm descends, drenching the forest. We venture out anyway, and find that the storm has grounded a large flight of Eastern Kingbirds and Scarlet Tanagers. In just the trees that encircle us, we count at least 50 of the brilliant male tanagers. The green females are much harder to detect in the confusion of leaves, although we manage to find a couple. (In many of the passerines, the males migrate a week or two before the females, and that may be happening with these tanagers.)

In mid-afternoon the storm finally lifts, and migrating Swainson's Hawks immediately take to the skies, rising by the hundreds from the surrounding forest. I expect that the tanagers and kingbirds will lift off at nightfall, joining the hawks in the river of birds which wing their way north each spring.

Have you been especially impressed and delighted by one of your encounters with migrant birds? I welcome your comments.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Nightfall in Monteverde Cloud Forest

Night deepens in this Costa Rican reserve, where our tour group has special permission to stay until after dark. Black are the shapes of roosting guans, the silhouette of a forest falcon. A sleepy quetzal stirs. Jupiter and its moons shine overhead. A tarantula hulks inside her burrow.

Resplendent Quetzal in Monteverde 
(Watercolor by Narca)

Fireflies flicker on, first one, then two, and soon constellations of bioluminescent creatures are drifting through the forest. We see hundreds. Their lights gleam blue, green, pale lemon, ivory, pale orange, reddish, white. One pair of tan beetles mates, pulsing light. The stars have slipped to earth.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


I'm thinking back to Australia today! Here's another vignette from last summer's trip.

At the beginning of our trip, Jim bravely drove us out of the Sydney airport and headed for Glen Davis, en route to Bowra Station, using my 20-year-old map of New South Wales. The road system around Sydney had undergone a few changes in the past two decades. With our map proving unreliable, we steered west by the sun, and finally admitted that we needed a bit of guidance to find the right road to Mudgee and, beyond, to Glen Davis.

The road to Glen Davis (Photo by Narca)

We rounded a corner and were waved over by two policemen. One shoved an instrument that looked like a handheld radio in front of Jim's face and said, "OK mate, one-to-five." Jim looked confused. I interpreted, "He wants you to count."

"Oh...uh...one-two-three-four-five... Can I ask if this is the road to Mudgee?"

That simple question unleashed an exchange worthy of Saturday Night Live. "Me 'n' my mate, we're from Sydney, they just send us up here where it's too cold.... So you want to go to Sludgie... that's Mudgee.... Hey, do you know if this is the way to Sludgie-that's-Mudgee?" And so they cartwheeled through a 10-minute comedy routine that left us in no doubt as to their true calling. It ended with "Enjoy Sludgie-that's-Mudgee! We have to get back to work."

We enjoyed Sludgie-that's-Mudgee, but we enjoyed Glen Davis even more. The little-traveled road to Glen Davis winds through miles of eucalypt forest. At one dry stream crossing, several Superb Lyrebirds raced and flew back and forth across the road, much more concerned with their own urgent business than with four optic-laden humans.

Common Bronzewings (Photo by Noel Snyder)

Near the crest of a hill, flowering Eucalyptus trees were drawing in scores of nectar-feeding lorikeets and honeyeaters, and among them was a real prize––a spectacular yellow-black-and-white Regent Honeyeater. Masses of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos filled the valley. Each turn of the road brought another discovery: Common Bronzewings; Australian Pipits; multicolored finches; Red-rumped Parrots.

The hospitable village of Glen Davis has a small campground, complete with hot showers, where visitors may camp for free. Australian King Parrots and Brown Treecreepers greeted these four weary travelers.

Australian King Parrot (Photo by Narca)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Goose on the Lava Flows??

In Hawaii, wandering atop the dark lava flows (only recently colonized by 'ohi'a shrubs), is a small goose, the Nene. I marvel that a waterbird, a goose, is at home on these rough lava beds.

Nene on the Big Island (Photo by Narca)

Hawaii's extreme isolation has posed an enormous barrier to colonization by wildlife. Any bird, mammal or butterfly that came under its own power from the nearest continent had to cross nearly two thousand miles of ocean to get there. Yet some managed the feat: a bat; a few butterflies; an ancestral finch; an ancestral thrush; a hawk. In this tropical terrain of fire, mist and rainbows, a few winged colonizers gave rise to a marvelous radiation of species.

The Nene's long-ago ancestor was very similar to the Canada Goose. In all, at least nine species of goose evolved on the Hawaiian Islands, but only the engaging Nene survives, a symbol of quintessential old Hawaii. 

You can see the Nene without too much trouble, on Kaua'i where they have been successfully introduced as part of a strategy to prevent their extinction, and on the Big Island, where they still roam the lava flows, quite at home. 

If you would enjoy seeing Nenes and other unique Hawaiian wildlife, I invite you to join me in March 2011 on a WINGS tour to explore Hawaii. Just click on the link to the WINGS website. 

We'll be linking the trip to a Midway tour, "The Albatrosses of Midway Atoll," for those who would enjoy coming on both. The Midway tour is also running this coming spring, in March 2010, and we still have a few spaces––why not join the fun?!

Nene (Pen and ink by Narca)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

What's in a Tail Pattern?

Ringtail (Pen and ink by Narca)

While assembling art for my book, I was very struck by the fact that such diverse mammals have evolved the same arresting tail pattern. Check it out!

Ring-tailed Lemurs (Pen and ink by Narca)

These animals aren't closely related. The marmoset is a New World primate, which fills a squirrel-type niche in the forests of Brazil. The Ring-tailed Lemur, like all lemurs, lives only in Madagascar and is a member of an early offshoot from the lineage that gave rise to primates. The Ringtail, or Ring-tailed Cat, is even more distantly related: it belongs to the raccoon family (not the cat family) and roams the southwestern US and northern Mexico.

White Tufted-eared Marmosets (Pen and ink by Narca)

What would be the advantage of having such a tail? Certainly the tails' length and weight would help these agile animals to balance as they scamper through the trees. But why the coloration?

We can run through the standard issues. Would this be disruptive coloration, as in zebras, where the black-and-white striping is thought to cause visual confusion among predators, making it harder to single out just one prey animal among the herd? Although these three species aren't herd animals, the pattern might still help divert a strike away from the more vulnerable parts of the body, enabling the animal to survive some close calls.

Other notions have nothing to do with pesky predators. Maybe a striking tail pattern helps these active critters to keep track of each other when they jump through the trees. So the function could be social, perhaps in addition to being protective.

Aldous Huxley had yet another idea, that sometimes Nature is simply extravagant in details such as the "polychromed posterior of the baboon" or the "self-importance of man." That view has a certain appeal, after the weighty seriousness of the scientist. Yet it probably isn't the best argument to apply here, since the same pattern crops up in several lineages––it must have practical advantages!

You can probably think of more animals sporting a black-and-white banded tail, and more reasons why the adaptation works. Feel free to comment!