Category Archives: Nature

McKinney Ranch

Tales of Little Morongo

Chapter 1: McKinney Ranch

Back in the 1920s and ‘30s, Palm Springs, California was transforming into a resort town for health tourists and movie stars. My great-grandfather worked as a carpenter back then, and helped build famous Palm Springs hotels, such as the El Mirador, in 1927. The El Mirador Hotel was demolished and replaced by a hospital in the 1970s. But its iconic tower on Indian Canyon Drive was spared, and remains standing to this day.

One of my great-grandfather’s sons, my great-uncle Clarence, became the first movie theater projectionist in Palm Springs, during the 1930s. This “movie theater” was not much back then, consisting of just a large tent, with some chairs, a screen, and a projector. But it was where my great-uncle’s career began. This was the only job he would ever have, apart from a few years serving in a different kind of theater, while in the U.S. Navy. That was World War II’s Pacific Theater, where he saw action at Iwo Jima.

After the Navy, Uncle Clarence returned to Palm Springs, bought a house with a G.I. loan, got married, and returned to work running the movie projector at the local theater. Which by this time was a solid building. There he stayed contentedly employed for the next 40-plus years.

One of my favorite memories was when he allowed me to spend a shift with him, in the projector room of what was now a large cineplex. This was in 1979, and the original Superman movie was one of the featured films. But I didn’t give a damn about watching Christopher Reeves save the planet. Rather, I was fascinated with my uncle’s explanations about how projectors work, and watching him load the reels onto the big machines.

We lost touch with each other until about 20 years later, when I was working as a mailman in Palm Springs, subbing on someone else’s route. I recognized his house and brought his mail to his door. He was in his eighties by this time, and his memory was slipping a little. But after about a minute of reminding him who I was, he remembered and invited me inside.

This was one of the few times I broke my work ethic, and extended my ten-minute break beyond its limits. Uncle Clarence and I had some catching up to do. Thank god no postal manager decided to check up on me, or I would have had some awkward explaining to do after I returned to my mail truck a half-hour later. But I made it up to the U.S. Postal Service, by skipping a few breaks over the next several days. So it’s all good.

Uncle Clarence lived near the union hall, so after that I would stop and visit him on my way to union meetings. And he would regale me with stories of the old Palm Springs, when it was just a dusty, dirt road, hole-in-the-wall.

For instance, he told me about how Palm Springs had no school back then, so he and his schoolmates would have to ride a bus 40 miles, one-way, to attend classes in Yucaipa. Kids had to behave on that bus, or the bus driver would kick them out and make them ride standing, on the back bumper. I guess those were different times, when we had fewer lawyers.

But that’s not why I’m writing this post. No, I’ve brought up my uncle Clarence so I can bring up the subject of Little Morongo Canyon. Uncle Clarence gives me a good excuse to do that.

When he was growing up, he became friends with the McKinney family. They owned a ranch in Little Morongo Canyon, on the south side of Morongo Valley. Morongo Valley is about 15 miles north of Palm Springs, and 2,000 feet higher. In fact it’s located at the very southwestern tip of the Mojave desert.

Little Morongo Canyon hosts the Little Morongo River. This river flows mostly underground, from the rugged foothills of the San Bernardino mountains, traveling about 10 miles to Morongo Valley. There it crosses the valley on a subterranean and transverse path, and continues another 5 miles or so through the Little San Bernardino mountains, finally playing out near the city of Desert Hot Springs.

Although it’s mostly underground, here and there the river gurgles up, forming small and large springs. Probably the largest springs are located at McKinney Ranch. The McKinney family are the original homesteaders of this sparkling jewel of the Mojave desert, and my uncle was friends with these pioneers, from way back in the 1920s and ‘30s.

My uncle had a daughter named Melinda, who eventually married one of old man McKinney’s grandchildren. I barely knew her, but even so, this marriage made me kind of a shoestring relative of the McKinney’s. And my sister too. My sister owned a large horse ranch near Little Morongo Canyon, and once in awhile she’d take me on rides to the McKinney Ranch. Because we were relatives, we were allowed to tromp on their property.

I have no photos of McKinney Ranch, but this oasis at Fortynine Palms Canyon typifies the native palm trees that reflect in the waters of oases found in lower parts of the Mojave Desert.

This is a heavenly piece of land. Here, the Little Morongo River bubbles up to feed large ponds surrounded by palm trees. It’s a stunningly lush oasis in the midst of the blistering, harsh elements of the hot and dry Mojave. I’ve always been impressed with the McKinney Ranch, and feel fortunate to have ridden its trails.

But Melinda eventually divorced her McKinney spouse, and my sister and I lost our relative status as relatives. Nonetheless, it was an amicable divorce, so we still retained entry privileges. And my uncle Clarence continued to remain old friends of this family, also. In fact, they adored him, and visited him frequently.

Sadly, Melinda developed brain cancer, and passed away. This happened about the same time my uncle’s wife also died from cancer. So in just a few quick swoops, life turned against my aging uncle, and he was left devastated and alone.

The last time I knocked on my uncle’s door was in 2006. He was 88 at this time, and growing more and more forgetful. He didn’t recognize me, and appeared frightened. I had to spend several minutes reminding him who I was, until his face finally lit up and he invited me inside.

But he still seemed a little unsure about me, and our conversation proceeded in fits and starts. After this I decided it was probably best never to return. I didn’t want to scare him anymore.

He passed away in 2011, at the age of 92. And his ashes were scattered at his favorite spot on Earth. The McKinney Ranch.

But again, that’s not why I’m writing this post. This is merely an excuse to bring up Little Morongo Canyon. I’ve had some memorable adventures in this canyon, myself, just like my uncle during his youthful years. Here I confronted my fear of bears. Here I worked as a real-life, genuine cowboy. Here I was recruited to break up a romance. And here I nearly died, along with my father-in-law.

I’m getting too old for anymore such adventures, so I doubt I’ll ever follow the trails through Little Morongo Canyon again. But I’ll always have my memories. And it’s these memories that I’ll be posting about, during this six-part series.

This is the first installation of my six-part series, Tales of Little Morongo. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 2: Touching a Bear .


Warner on our front patio. He seems to be a young roadrunner. Notice the downy feathers?

This is our newly adopted child. Or maybe he adopted us. All I know is that he always wants food. We named him Warner, after the Warner Brothers cartoon roadrunner.

Warner seems to be a young roadrunner, judging by his smaller than normal size and abundance of downy feathers.

It’s nearly impossible to gauge the gender of a roadrunner, but we assume he’s a male. That’s because all roadrunners have a bare patch of skin behind their eyes, and in some that patch is white, while in others it’s blue. Some ornithologists think the white may indicate male, and the blue may indicate female. This hasn’t been proven yet, but Warner has a white patch, so we’re assuming he’s a dude.

This speedy bird follows us around when we’re out in our front yard, begging for a handout while clattering his beak. When we’re inside he hops up on a table next to our livingroom window and stares forlornly at us, hoping for a sympathy treat. If we don’t notice him, he pecks on the window pane to get our attention.

He’s an omnivore, like all roadrunners, so he’ll eat just about anything. But meat is preferred. We feed him rolled up, raw hamburger balls, which are hastily gobbled up whole. Roadrunners also love to eat lizards and snakes, and with their speed, they’re particularly good at killing rattlesnakes. My wife is ophidiophobic, so I think that’s what she likes best about Warner.

Roadrunners prefer to run, but they can fly if they need to, in order to escape a predator. A roadrunner’s top speed is generally about 20 mph, although some have been clocked at up to 27 mph.

Coyotes, on the other hand, can sprint up to 45 miles per hour, over about a quarter mile stretch. Unfortunately, rather than use their superior speed, coyotes try to outsmart roadrunners. The inevitable result is that they find themselves smashed against paintings of caves, ineffectually shielding themselves with small parasols, from large falling rocks, or free falling into unbelievably deep chasms.

Roadrunners are cuckoo. Literally. They are members of the cuckoo family, and are known as ground cuckoos, of the genus Geococcyx. There are only two species of roadrunners, and these are the Greater Roadrunner, or Geococcyx californianus, and the Lesser Roadrunner, or Geococcyx velox. Warner is a Greater Roadrunner, and we do think he’s pretty great.

The Greater Roadrunner can be found in a southerly range that stretches from California, all the way east to Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and south into Mexico. The Lesser Roadrunner, which is a little smaller and more colorful than the Greater, can be found in Mexico and Central America.

Roadrunners mate for life, and make their nests about three to 10 feet up, in trees, bushes, and cacti. We haven’t seen any other roadrunners around Warner, so it seems likely he hasn’t found a mate yet. But when he does, it will be interesting to see if she has blue behind her eyes.

Roadrunners don’t go beep-beep. Rather, they make a clattering sound with their beaks. They also make a descending cooing call, like a dove, though I haven’t yet heard this from Warner.

They have built in solar heaters, which consists of black skin on their backs. When they need to warm up, they fluff up their back feathers to expose their black skin to the sun.

Their tracks are X-shaped, which keeps you from knowing which direction this bird has traveled. Indian lore has it that this keeps evil spirits from being able to follow them. Cartoon lore has it that this keeps coyotes from following them.

Indians also believe that it’s good luck to see a roadrunner. We think so. And we hope it’s even better luck to adopt one.

And if you’re in the mood for a roadrunner cartoon, check out this recent post from Vic, at Cosmic Observation.

Improving Our Bird Brains, Part 6: Brown Pelican

This is the last installment of my Improving Our Bird Brains series. By now we must be birdbrain geniuses. We’ve become so smart that I think there’s little room for further improvement, and therefore no more need for these featherbrained posts.

Before I get into the Brown pelican bird, I want to warn readers that there’s a tobacco substitute, as well as several sex acts, also called the Brown pelican. It’s all disgusting and vile, and anyone who’s asked if they’d like a Brown pelican is well advised to run like hell.

As for the bird, there are eight species of pelicans worldwide, divided into two groups: the browns and the whites, with four species of browns (actually, some are grayish pink), and four species of whites (actually, one is black and white, and one is grayish white). It appears that whoever did the dividing was also a little birdbrained.

This is the kind of Brown pelican I’m referring to.

The skies and waters of the United States host only two of these species of pelican, imaginatively called the Brown pelican and the American white pelican. These birds have a lot of similarities, but there are also some differences.

For instance all pelicans feed by swimming around in the water until they spot a fish, then plunging their beaks in and grabbing it. However, Brown pelicans also often fish by flying more than 30 to 60 feet above the water, and diving in head first. Diving from such heights is a derring-do that no other pelican possesses.

A Brown pelican diving for fish, at Bahia Honda State Park, Florida.

In shallow waters, pelicans will use teamwork to catch fish. Several form a line, and drive small schools into the shallow waters by beating their wings against the water. Then they dive in and scoop up their prey. Those who don’t get any fish, punch out on a time clock and have to wait until every other Friday for their share of the catch.

A couple of Brown pelicans fishing together, at Bahia Honda State Park, Florida.

Pelicans often catch multiple fish before eating, and store them in their big throat pouch. In order to eat the fish, a pelican has to tilt its beak forward to drain the water from the pouch. This can take up to a full minute, and gives other sea birds a chance to zip in and steal the food right out of the pelican’s mouth. This must be draining for pelicans, in more ways than one.

Brown pelicans are masterful fliers. They often fly in group formation, skimming the ocean just inches above the waves. They have long, broad wings, with an unusually large number of 30 to 35 secondary flight feathers. They use these great wings to create an air cushion between themselves and the ocean, and this enables them to glide very close to the water without touching the surface. It’s an effortless way to fly, and they often employ it to travel long distances.

But when pelicans need to fly further, they go high instead of low. They catch a thermal and soar to heights up to 10,000 feet. Then they glide for distances over 90 miles, to feeding areas.

Pelicans nest in colonies, and are monogamous. But they only stay married for one season. After that, it’s Splitsville, and off to a new mate with each new season. And as usual, the lawyers get everything.

These Brown pelicans off of Florida’s Little Torch Key have long faces, because it’s raining.

People are stupid when it comes to pelicans. For centuries human beans have tried to kill these great birds off, because they’re seen as competition for fish. However most of the fish that pelicans eat are not the type that people eat. They’re not much competition at all.

But this hasn’t stopped large culling campaigns, dating back to the 19th century in America. And it’s still happening. In 2016, the Idaho Fish and Game department launched an attack on pelicans with the goal of cutting their population in half. And this even though they are classified as a “species of greatest conservation need.” Fuckin’ potato heads.

Pelicans eat lots of fish, but not usually the kind humans eat.

Human ignorance has also led to pelicans being revered. In medieval times they were thought to be self-sacrificial parents that would wound their own breasts and feed their own blood to their young, when no other food was available. This is a myth, brought on by the observation that pelicans sometimes press their bills very hard into their chests. But they’re not stabbing themselves with their bills. Actually, they’re trying to completely empty their pouches and finish swallowing all their caught fish.

Religious statue of a pelican wounding its breast to feed its young. Photo by Andreas Praefcke. CC BY 3.0.

Nonetheless this myth of self-sacrifice has allowed the pelican admission into Christian iconology, as they remind the pious of Christ’s self-sacrifice. It’s not uncommon to see drawings of these birds on the cover pages of bibles, or to see pelican statues at churches or other Christian institutions. Which I think is appropriate, since I find religion hard to swallow, just like the pelican trying to empty its pouch.

DDT caused a major decline in the population of pelicans in the 1950s and 1960s, but they have since made an impressive recovery. Today there are around a quarter-million Brown pelicans in the United States and the Caribbean, and more than 150,000 American white pelicans in the United States.

I have no more to say about the pelican, so I’ll leave off with these words, often misattributed to Ogden Nash, but actually written in 1910 by American poet Dixon Lanier Merritt:

A wonderful bird is the pelican.
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak,
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

Improving Our Bird Brains, Part 5: Osprey

Some of the biggest and most beautiful birds my wife and I witnessed while in Florida were ospreys.

Nobody knows what ospreys really are, but scientists call them Pandion haliateus. They’re considered by ornithologists to be one of the most unique birds on the planet. In fact they’re so unique, they belong to their own scientific family (Pandionidae), and genus (Pandion). But no, they’re not related to pandas.

Some scientists claim there are three or four subspecies of osprey. But these subspecies are so similar that other scientists argue they are all the same. Scientists just love to disagree, don’t they? I think they can easily resolve this controversy. A duel with derringers at 20 paces ought to do it.

Ospreys are found on all the continents of the world except Antarctica, where it’s too fucking cold. It’s considered unusual for a single species of animal to have such a widespread distribution, which is one of the things that makes these birds so unique.

Another thing that makes them unique is that they’re piscivorous, having a diet consisting almost entirely of fish. Other raptors feast on a wide variety of prey, but not ospreys. They like fish, they want fish, and they won’t eat anything but fish, unless they’re forced by starvation. Hence, your cats and small dogs are safe in osprey territory.

This means that if you’re looking for ospreys, you must go where the fish are. And that is near large bodies of water, such as the ocean. But they can also be found thousands of miles inland, by lakes and rivers.

An osprey hovering over the Firehole River, at Yellowstone National Park, preparing to dive down and catch a fish.

Another name for ospreys is seahawks. Aside from their talent for fishing, seahawks are regarded for their skills at punting, passing, receiving, and running. But so far they’ve only won one Super Bowl.

Ospreys are huge sons-of-bitches, with wingspans reaching up to six feet. And they have sharper eyesight than your average eagle. They can see through glare on the surface of water, and thus find fish in many different light conditions. There’s no hiding from an osprey.

They’ll fly 30 to over 100 feet above water, briefly hover as they spot an unsuspecting fish near the surface, then plunge feet first into the water and grab the poor bastard. When they hit the water, a nictating membrane closes over their eyes, and valves in their nostrils seal shut. Meanwhile, their well-oiled feathers waterproof them, and keep them from sinking.

An osprey patrolling the waters of the Bahia Honda Channel, in the Florida keys.

Their hooked toes pierce the body of the fish. Each foot has a reversible toe, similar to a human thumb, that works to more tightly grasp the slippery piscine and keep it from slithering away. This is a near-unique feature of ospreys, as no other bird of prey has such reversible toes, except owls.

Their massive wings enable them to hoist fish out of the water that weigh 10% to 50% of their own weight. Most of the fish they catch weigh only about a pound, but some can weigh over four pounds.

Ospreys across the world eat a wide variety of fish, but an individual osprey tends to be a picky eater, concentrating on the two or three types that are most prevalent where it hunts.

After an osprey catches a fish, it carries it so that the fish’s head faces forward, as it transports it to its nest. Bald eagles sometimes mug them enroute, by chasing them down and forcing them to drop their catch.

Ospreys prefer to nest at the tops of trees such as this, at Bahia Honda State Park, Florida.

Ospreys like to nest at the tops of trees and poles. At first they’ll throw a few sticks together, then line them with smaller, finer material. They keep the same nest year-after-year, gradually building it bigger and bigger. By the time they reach old age, which is somewhere around 10 years old, they will have built quite a large dream home for their retirement.

They mate for life and produce one brood of two to four eggs per year. The male goes off and catches fish while his wife babysits. He brings his catch back to her. Then she does all the cooking and feeds the fish to her young. Apparently, ospreys haven’t graduated from the traditional nuclear family structure of the 1950s.

This fledgling osprey seems to be going out on a limb, at Bahia Honda State Park, Florida.

DDT made ospreys an endangered species 50 to 60 years ago, but they’ve made a big comeback since then. So the next time you’re near the ocean, or some other large body of water, keep your eye on the sky and you just might be lucky enough spot one of these unique birds of prey.

Improving Our Bird Brains, Part 4: Ibis

Thoth, with his ibis-shaped head. Art by Jeff Dahl, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Lodging is expensive in Florida, and when my wife and I were vacationing there, we always had a big bill. This put us in good company with the ibis, which also has a big bill.

In fact, it’s a big, long, curved bill, and the most distinctive feature of an ibis, other than its strange name. Hey Jason Frels, just try to make a pun out of “ibis”. I challenge you.

The ibis uses its curved bill to probe around the bottom of shallow waters, hunting for crayfish. And its bill is sensitive, which allows it to hunt by feel, as it cannot see those little mudbugs skittering around in the murky waters. This is a highly effective way to hunt, for these birds , although I imagine it must lead to a few surprises now and then.

Even though the ibis prefers crawdads, it’s also willing to eat just about anything, including fish, crabs, and insects. It tends to locate fish in willow ponds, and crabs in mangrove forests.

There are many species of ibis found throughout the world, in both temperate and tropical climates. The African sacred ibis was worshiped by ancient Egyptians, and was associated with the deity Thoth.

Thoth is depicted as a man with an ibis’ head, including that weird, curved bill. This god was thought to have created writing, mathematics, time, the moon, and magic. And so you see, having a bird brain can actually make you smart.

Legend has it that the Northern bald ibis was one of the first birds to be released by Noah, from his ark. I can understand why, as Noah probably got tired of looking at this ugly-assed bird. What a scary sight!

The Northern bald ibis. Yeah, if I was Noah, this would be the first bird I’d eject from my ark to go search for land. And probably on day 1 rather than 41. Photo by Richard Bartz, aka Makro Freak, CC BY-SA 2.5.

The ibis found in the United States is known as the American white ibis, and it’s much better looking than Noah’s ibis. Its most common habitat is in Florida, but it can also be found in coastal areas as far north as Virginia, and as far south as Texas. Outside the U.S., its range extends even further south, through Mexico, and as far down as Ecuador.

A male white ibis can weigh nearly three pounds, while females tend to be much smaller, at less than two pounds. Ibis get up to 28 inches long, with a wingspan of up to 41 inches.

They’re known as the “white” ibis, but this is false advertising, as they’re not pure white. They actually have black wingtips. However, they tuck these wingtips out of sight while on the ground, so you can’t see them unless they’re in flight.

Is the plural “ibis” or “ibises”? I think you can use either, though I prefer “ibiseseseseses.” This is a flock of ibiseseseseses in flight above the Everglades, showing off their black wingtips.

Also, some young ibis are not white, but can be gray or brown, while slowly transforming to white as they molt, over the first two years of their life.

Two juvenile “white” ibis apparently hunting for crabs in a mangrove forest on Long Key, Florida. The one on the left has lost most of its brown feathers, while the one on the right has a ways to go before it can start looking like a grownup.

Ibis tend to reproduce more during droughts than during wet years. That’s because droughts make bodies of water more shallow, which increases the availability of their favorite food, the crayfish. I guess like with people, good food can lead to good sex.

But it’s tricky business, becoming a new ibis. Up to 75% of their eggs are robbed by crows, gulls, raccoon, and rat snakes, and half the chicks that manage to hatch are killed by additional predation. But if one is lucky enough to reach adulthood, it can expect to live up to 16 years or more in the wild. Unless an alligator gets it.

The pollutant methylmercury affects the mating behavior of ibis, turning many of them homosexual, and causing parents to abandon their nests. It doesn’t kill them, but it does lead to less reproduction and reduced populations of this bird.

But so far the American white ibis is not considered to be a threatened species. Therefore, thankfully, we can expect to enjoy this beautiful bird with its big, curved bill, for many years to come.

An ibis in Key West, tempted by food and using its math skills to calculate its chances of avoiding capture.

Improving Our Bird Brains, Part 3: Herons

My last installment was about egrets, which I have no regrets about. Except that egrets are herons. However, herons are not necessarily egrets. And some herons are also known as bitterns.

That’s because herons are weird. They come in a wide variety of peculiar, funny-looking species. But they do have some things in common.

Most herons have long, sharp bills, the better for harpooning fish and other creatures. They also have long, extensile necks. In fact, I think the necks are the weirdest part of herons. They can kink it down to an S-shape, and cover it with their feathers, so it looks like they have no neck at all.

Herons also have long legs, which they use for wading in shallow waters, while hunting for food. They mainly eat aquatic creatures, such as fish, frogs, salamanders, molluscs, crabs, and aquatic insects. But they are also fond of lizards, which they have to venture out on land, to catch.

Herons love to still-hunt. They will stand motionless in or near water and wait for any prey to wander close by. Or, they may pace very slowly and stealthily, and sneak up on their victims. And some will drop bait in the water, to lure their prey within striking range of their long necks.

Most herons live in colonies, and all herons are monogamous. However some females have been known to pair with impotent mates. They compensate for this by catching a little on the side, with virile males who don’t mind straying from their own mates now and then, heron there. So I suspect there can be some bitter, depressing soap opera dramas within heron colonies.

I saw lots of herons in Florida, though at the time I didn’t know that’s what they were called. Or maybe somebody told me, but hell, I’m hard of heron. I got lots of pictures of them. They’re very photogenic, primarily because they tend to stand still for long periods of time. They’re a photographer’s dream.

So please enjoy the following clear, sharp photos of strange but beautiful herons:

A Great Blue Heron in the Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area of the Florida Everglades. This guy maintained this pose for about ten minutes until I finally decided to take its picture. I felt sorry for it. After all, anyone who wants their photo taken this badly should really be obliged.

This Green Heron posed for me at the Blue Hole, on Big Pine Key. This is a relatively small species of heron, attaining an adult body length of only about 17 inches. Green herons are loners. They don’t like other birds. And like loners, they tend to be psychopathic. When they catch frogs, they drown them before eating them. Sick bastards. They’re also smart, and are one of the few birds known to use tools. The tools they use are small bites of food, which they drop in the water to bait their prey.

This is the Yellow Crowned Night Heron, which I observed at Bahia Honda State Park, in the Florida Keys. Strangely, although it’s a “Night” heron, I caught it out in broad daylight, committing its crimes. And as you can see, I caught it in mid-stride. But there’s no blur in the photo, because this bird moved in super-slow motion, as it slowly inched along the beach, stealthily stalking its prey. This type of heron specializes in eating crustaceans, particularly crabs.

Another Yellow-Crowned Night Heron at Bahia Honda State Park. This guy has its neck retracted. Notice how much shorter its neck seems to be, compared with its counterpart in the prior photo? I wonder if herons are related to turtles.

Improving Our Bird Brains, Part 2: Great White Egret

A Great White Egret standing in a sawgrass meadow, Everglades National Park.

We’re improving our bird brains, by studying up on some of the weird-ass birds my wife and I encountered in Florida.

In this here Part 2, we get learned about the Great White Egret.

This majestic, albescent bird is also known as the Great White Heron, or simply, the Great Egret. They’re found in the southern United States, from the eastern seaboard all the way west to California. They’ve been known to migrate as far north as Massachusetts, and many Great Egrets migrate to South America in the winter.

We saw a ton of them in Florida, but about a hundred years ago they were scarce. You see, egrets have long, white plumes, called aigrettes, and during the late 19th and early 20th centuries these aigrettes were in high demand. Ladies used them to adorn their ostentatious hats. Hell, you were nobody if you didn’t have a big white feather in your hat.

Marie Antoinette’s head looks very attractive with aigrettes in her cap, don’cha think?

So hunters in those days sought these plumes, to sell to the ladies. And they decimated about 95% of the egret population. Conservationists became alarmed and waged a campaign to save the Great Egret from extinction. They succeeded, and this beautiful white bird made a great comeback, and also became the symbol of the National Audubon Society.

Here’s some trivia that is probably not worth including in this post: Did you know that Frank Sinatra kept a few egrets in a home aviary? Well, he sang about this in one of his hits, with the lyrics, “Egrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention . . .”

They’re not called Greats for nothing. Great White Egrets exceed three feet in length, with a wingspan more than four feet.

In Florida, their nesting habitat is primarily on mangrove islands within Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, and Key West National Wildlife Refuge. Both of these refuges are in the Florida Keys.

This egret is fishing near mangroves, in Mrazek Pond, Everglades National Park.

Their nests tend to be high up, and like a chauvinist, the male selects where to build it. He courts the female by making calls (after first obtaining her cell number). He also flies around in a sexy circle. And to really get her going, he stretches his long neck way up in the air, pointing his slender beak skyward. I think men can relate to this particular technique.

It can be rough, growing up as an egret. You tend to have two or three siblings, and if food is scarce and you’re the weakest, one of your big brothers or sisters will kill you. But if you manage to survive that, then after about 6-7 weeks of drinking your parents’ vomit, you can fly away and start a life of your own.

Then you can do things your way, and perhaps have a few egrets of your own.

Some juvenile Great White Egrets have gray plumage that gradually transforms to white.

Improving Our Bird Brains, Part 1: Anhinga

When my wife and I were sojourning in Florida a few months ago, we saw many strange birds we’d never encountered before in the wilds. I took photos just to have evidence I’d seen such weird looking critters. Then I looked them up on the internet, to identify them.

I don’t fancy myself much of a bird watcher, but I learned some fascinating things about these winged weirdos. Yep, I really improved my bird brain. And I figgered my followers might want to have their bird brains fixed up too. So this here’s a series I’m launching, called Improving Our Bird Brains. We’ll be reading it fer a spell or two, ‘til we’re all a might bit smarter.

This is Part 1. It’s about the Anhinga bird.

We first spotted the Anhinga at the Blue Hole on Big Pine Key. It was sitting in a tree with its head tucked into its wing, trying to sleep. Or maybe it was just shy. But once in awhile it would peak out and I’d try to grab a picture. I had to be quick, and on one of my snapshots I managed to capture its pointy face.

The male Anhinga is nearly solid black, with silver highlights in its wings. This is how this male, at the Blue Hole on Big Pine Key, appeared for a brief second, before poking its face back under its wing.

You’ll notice it has a long, sharp beak. It uses that beak to impale fish.

These birds are about 37 inches long, and have a wingspan three-and-a-half feet wide. They have webbed feet like a duck, but unlike most ducks, they can perch in a tree.

The Anhinga is also called the Loch Ness Monster bird. That’s because of the way it appears when swimming. It’s a water bird, but unlike ducks and many other waterfowl, the Anhinga has no oil on its feathers. So when it swims in a pond or lake, it is not buoyant. Rather, its body sinks way down low, and all you see is a long neck sticking out, kind of like the way Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster appears.

This low profile allows the Anhinga to sneak more stealthily upon its prey, sort of like a submarine with just its periscope sticking up. When it spots a fish, its long neck strikes with the speed of an archer, as its arrow-like beak skewers the fish. Then it tosses the unfortunate piscine up in the air and catches it in its mouth.

There’s a drawback to being without a pinguid integument. The lack of oil means the feathers of the Anhinga absorb water and become soaked. And so this bird is forced to spend much of its time sitting in trees with its wings extended, in an effort to dry them out.

Anhinga drying its feathers at Mrazek Pond, Everglades National Park.

The sight is haunting. If you’re ever hiking alone through a swamp and spot this black bird drying its feathers, with its outstretched, 42-inch wingspan, it’s likely to raise the hair on the back of your neck. And you might just turn around and run like hell, in horripilation. Until a hand reaches out from underground, grabs your ankle, and pulls you into quicksand.

In fact, the word Anhinga is from the Brazilian Tupi language, meaning devil bird. In America they’re also called water turkeys, because they resemble male turkeys while drying their feathers.

The Anhinga is found all over the world, in warm, shallow waters. It’s been known to migrate as far north as Pennsylvania during the summer, but sticks to America’s southern coast in the winter.

The female Anhinga has a light tan neck, such as this beauty at Mrazek Pond, Everglades National Park.


We drove through the famous tourist trap, Duval Street, on our recent visit to Key West, Florida. The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory caught our eye. Fortunately it was early enough in the morning to find a parking space, so we put some money in the meter and ran off to chase butterflies.

Macrolepidoptera is Latin, meaning large, scaled wings, which is sort of like my skin in winter. But it’s actually an insect order that includes moths and butterflies. What’s the difference between a moth and a butterfly? Let’s put our moth skills to work, and figure this out.

Moths have been around for 190 million years. That’s a long time. Butterflies are latecomers. They evolved from moths around 56 million years ago. They came to being in an area that is now known as Denmark, and they spread to the Americas around 34 million years ago.

We bought our tickets and stepped through the whooshing vacuum doors of the Conservatory, and were immediately surrounded by living color, fluttering like feathers all around us. It felt magical.

Moths are usually nocturnal, whereas butterflies are almost always diurnal, working both the day and night shifts.

Moths tend to have dull colored wings that camouflage well on fuscous surfaces such as wood and bark. Butterflies usually have brightly colored wings. Moths hold their wings close to their bodies when at rest, while butterflies display their colorful wings like a spread-out fan while resting.

Classical music drifted in the background as I cursed these polychromatic creatures, who would not sit still for my camera. Butterflies are restless and can be very challenging to photograph. Except this sympathetic guy, who stood on a leaf and posed for me.

Most moths lay their eggs underground. Butterflies usually lay their eggs on plants, especially the hidden undersides of leaves.

Moth larvae envelope themselves in silky cocoons during their pupal stage, whereas most butterfly caterpillars simply harden into a chrysalis, without any surrounding silk.

Butterflies have a four-stage life cycle: Egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and imago (winged adult). The imago stage is also called the imaginal stage. In psychology, imago refers to an idealized concept of a loved one, which we form in early childhood and retain unconsciously as adults.

Some adult butterflies live only a week, while others survive nearly a full year. As they age, the color of their wings fades, and their wings become ragged.

The faded and ragged wings of this butterfly indicate it’s most likely a senior citizen.

Life cycles vary in length with different butterflies. In warmer, tropical climates, species tend to produce several generations per year. In moderate climates they often have only a single generation per year. And a few species, in cooler, arctic climates, have a life cycle lasting several years.

I have no idea the names of any of these butterflies at the Conservatory, but I’ll call the one on the left Jason, and the one on the right Colin.

There are about 18,500 different species of butterflies.

The smallest butterfly in the world is the Western Pygmy-Blue. At only 3/8 to 3/4 of an inch in size, its habitat ranges from eastern Oregon to Nebraska, and south to South America.

The largest butterfly in the world is the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, found in the rain forests of New Guinea. Its wingspan grows up to a foot wide. It’s an endangered species, due to habitat destruction from oil palm plantations, and a volcanic eruption in the 1950s. International law prohibits the commercial international trade of this insect, but some collectors buy them on the black market anyway, at prices up to $10,000.

Monarch butterflies are famous in North America for their habit of migrating thousands of miles south to overwinter in Mexico. They’re native to the Americas, but somehow managed to disperse worldwide several hundred years ago.

This butterfly has a wing with an unusual yellow ring. In fact, it’s such a unique specimen I’ll give it the scientific name of Macrolepidoptera unicornica.

Butterflies have hindsight. They actually have photoreceptor eyes on their asses. Or to be more precise, their genitals. These ass-eyes help them when mating to accurately align their genitals, to achieve copulation. I’m sure we’ve all had a few scary experiences where we can see how this would be helpful.

As for the eyes on their heads, butterflies have excellent near vision, but lousy distance vision, unless equipped with glasses or contact lenses. They can see color, and some species are especially good at detecting hues in the blue /violet range.

This is a Macrolepidoptera tippygnusis. Hey, as long as I’m naming them, I might as well feed my ego.

Butterflies detect odors with their antenna, and taste with their feet. I’ve always thought that some humans have taste in their feet, also.

Some species can hear, while others are deaf. And some communicate with each other through clicking sounds. Using Morse Code, I’ll bet.

They drink water with their curly proboscis, and also use that strange, unwinding thing to sip nectar from flowers. Some species of butterflies are attracted to salt, and will land on the skin of humans in order to obtain salt with their proboscis.

Butterflies getting their morning Vitamin C. If you want to attract these volant insects, this appears to be a way to do it.

Butterflies are important pollinators. They can’t carry as much pollen as bees, but they do carry it over greater distances, helping flowers spread their DNA far and wide.

Many butterflies are territorial, kind of like hummingbirds, and will chase off other species, or even intruders from their own species.

Butterflies can only fly when their body temperature is above 81F (27C). So in cool weather they warm themselves up by exposing the underside of their wings to the sun. In fact, this is why the underside of some butterfly wings are so dark. The dark colors help in the absorption of heat.

Butterflies are great at camouflage. Some uncannily resemble leaves. Others have splotchy-patterned wings that make them look like unpalatable bird droppings. And many butterflies have eyespot patterns on their wings. These distract predators, such as spiders, from attacking their vital head areas. Spiders are fooled into attacking the eyespots, giving these insects a chance to fly away and escape.

Eyespots on a Macrolepidoptera carolynicus. It’s a sweet tasting butterfly, but the spiders that try to catch it can’t figure out where it begins or ends.

Some butterflies protect themselves by having flight patterns that are very erratic. If you try to catch them, they’ll make you run around in crazy circles with your net. The fastest butterflies zoom about at 30 miles per hour, requiring a motorcycle to catch them. But some can only achieve speeds of 5 miles per hour, and are easy targets.

But the easy targets often taste terrible. I’ve never asked a frog or a lizard, but this is what I’ve heard. They consume toxins from plants, that make them poisonous. It’s a good defense mechanism. So good that other butterflies, that would never consume such foul-tasting toxins, mimic the appearance of the terrible tasting butterflies. And when frogs, lizards, birds, or other predators see them, they leave them alone.

Is this Macrolepidoptera crankypantsia edible or poisonous? Hard to tell. This depends on whether or not it drinks coffee.

Butterflies are fantastic creatures, colorful in both appearance and behavior. I like them better than moths, but moths have their good points too. Or at least, I’m sure every larva has a moth that loves it.

Spring is coming soon. I’m looking forward to it. Because with it will come warmer temperatures, flowers, and most especially, the fluttering wings of the majestic Macrolepidoptera.

The tickets were well worth the price, even though it always hurts to open my wallet. We said our goodbyes to Jason and Colin, and all the other colorful inhabitants of the Conservatory. They waved their wings goodbye to us, and we departed Key West with a sense of enchantment in our souls.

The Visitor

Colorado River Indian Reservation.

Note: I’ve recently been getting back in touch with nature, including visiting an Indian reservation and a few of our national parks. This must be what inspired the following story. Either that, or it was that Native American restaurant, where I ordered the Peyote Plate Special.

The Visitor


The visitor strode over the heat haze toward towers of rock in the sky. All around, the spirits of lizard and snake welcomed its presence and thanked it. The creosote bush waved, and the smoke tree bowed. High above, the crow and hawk sang its praises, and the quail below echoed in chorus.

It stood atop a bronze cliff, high above a river of blue, and watched it flowing, winding, dripping away, while a cloud of stars showered its head with gold and silver.

The skin of its feet sizzled from burning granite, so it cooled them in the river. It scooped water from this river, and poured it into its parched mouth, then quickly spat it back out. A cloud of death-smoke stung its eyes and choked its breath, until it sent it away with a wave of a hand. And then it hid in a canyon to shield its skin from the flaming sun.

The earth begged it for relief. The river cried. The sky wailed in misery. And the sun apologized for an imagined sin.

The visitor whispered to the earth and gave it encouragement. It spoke to the river and consoled it. It lifted its voice to the sky, with its sweet breath. And it sang a soft song to the sun.

“You have remained, flowed, blown, and shone since ancient times,” it reminded them. “This discomfort you feel is a mere itch. An itch passes like the shadow of a cloud. Time is your medicine.”

“And what of the humans?” they replied. “It is for them we also beg, cry, wail, and apologize. What of their itch? Will it, too, soon pass?”

The visitor laughed and shook its finger. “Ah but that is your job, to tame the human,” it retorted. “And I see from the scalding heat of this rock, the bitter taste of the river water, the unbreathable sky, and the fiery sting of the sun, that you are learning how to do this.

“The humans are hard to tame. But they are no match for you, their masters. Show no mercy. Spare no quarter. Accept nothing but complete submission. And then their itch shall pass. As shall yours. And then they can once again dwell under your control and enjoy your safe protection.”

Having taught what it came to teach, the visitor left for a stroll down the Milky Way, to other realms and other adventures in this grand universe of strange worlds and phenomena. The humans quickly passed from its mind. It had other, much more interesting things to do.

« Older Entries