Category Archives: Travel

Seven Continents of Birds

Wood duck, male, North America (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 January 2022

Today, some “eye candy” for a Friday — 7 beautiful birds from 7 continents.

See the captions for their names and continents. All photos are from Wikimedia Commons.

Common kestrel, Europe (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Grey-crowned crane, Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons by Luc Viatour
Blue Magpie, Asia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Major Mitchell’s cockatoo, Australia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Antarctic shag, Antarctica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Guacamole and Quetzals

Resplendent Quetzal, male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

What does the resplendent quetzal (pronounced ket ZAL) have in common with the Mexican food guacamole?

Guacamole with two chips (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Answer: Avocados

Guacamole’s main ingredient is mashed avocado from cultivated Persea americana trees. Small fruits of wild avocado trees (Persea sp.) are the resplendent quetzal’s (Pharomachrus mocinno) favorite food.

The cultivated avocado fruit and tree looks like this.

Cross section of a cultivated avocado (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Botanically speaking avocados are berries and there are many species.

In Mesoamerica, Persea proliferated into many new species, and the berries of some of them constitute a valuable food supply for quetzals that live in the montane rainforests of Mesoamerica. In particular, the resplendent quetzal‘s favorite fruits are berries of wild relatives of the avocado. Their differing maturing times in the cloudforest determine the migratory movements of the quetzals to differing elevation levels in the forests. With a gape width of 21 mm (0.83 in), the quetzal swallows the small berry (aguacatillo) whole, which he catches while flying through the lower canopy of the tree, and then regurgitates the seed within 100 meters (328 ft) from the tree.

Wikipedia: Persea genus

Resplendent quetzals time their breeding to coincide with the most abundant fruit and delay breeding in poor fruit years. Here’s a male quetzal and a wild avocado tree he might visit, Persea caerulea.

Resplendent quetzal, male, Monteverde, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Aguacatillo Persea caerulea fruits and leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Watch a pair of resplendent quetzals and their (gray colored) youngster among the wild avocado trees. The fruit is just the right size for a quetzal to swallow whole.

So now when you eat avocados you can think of resplendent quetzals.

(photos from Caroline Mueller and Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. This topic was inspired by Caroline Mueller’s avocado saplings which she grows from the leftover pits.

Two home grown avocado trees (photos by Caroline Mueller)

In December, Alaska Was Hotter Than Pittsburgh

A few of the record temperatures in Alaska on 26 December 2021 (map from data source: Alaska Geospatial Data Clearinghouse via Researchgate, data from National Weather Service Alaska)

5 January 2022

On 26 December 2021 the record high temperature for Alaska — for the entire state — was set at Kodiak Island when it reached 67oF at a tidal gauge. This was so unusual that the National Weather Service triple checked to make sure. Kodiak Airport was 65 degrees, Cold Bay was 62.

Pittsburgh also had record heat in December 2021 but not as hot as Alaska. Our record-tying high was 64oF on 16 December.

Meanwhile, across the Gulf of Alaska from the record heat was a record low temperature of 0 degrees F at Ketchican.

How could Alaska have such high and low extremes on the same day? The wildly wobbling jet stream pushed warm air up the western side of the Gulf of Alaska and poured cold air down its eastern side. This jet stream map, centered on the Gulf of Alaska, is explained at Axios: Alaska sets December temperature record at 67 degrees.

[image embedded from Axios] Wind speed and direction at about 30,000 feet above the surface on Dec. 26 centered on Alaska. This shows the northerly bend to the jet stream, which allowed milder air to flow in from the south. (

The extremes caused trouble throughout Alaska as unusual rain turned to ice and heavy snow. Alaska is definitely the poster child for climate change.

(map from data source: Alaska Geospatial Data Clearinghouse via Researchgate, tweets from @NWSAlaska, jet stream winds from embedded from Axios)

Volcano Gives a Christmas Gift

Cumbre Vieja eruption, 7 Dec 2021 (photo by Mike Peel via Wikimedia Commons)

4 January 2022

On Christmas Day the volcanic eruption of Cumbre Vieja on La Palma (Canary Islands), which began on 19 Sep 2021, was declared over at last.

“What I want to say today can be said with just four words: The eruption is over,” Canary Islands regional security chief Julio Perez said at a news conference.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez described the end at the Cumbre Vieja volcano as “the best Christmas present”.

UPI: Canary Islands volcano eruption declared over after 3 months of activity

Less than two weeks earlier, on 12 December, Cumbre Vieja broke the local record for the longest known eruption of any volcano on La Palma. By then it had run 85 days, one day longer than the Tajuya Volcano in 1585.

The next day, 13 December 2021, Cumbre Vieja burped a huge amount of sulphur dioxide gas that forced 30,000 people to shelter indoors and then it stopped rumbling. Seismic activity dropped to zero. Was it merely aiming to break Tajuya’s record?

Scientists waited and watched to make sure it was over. The official news came out on Christmas Day.

The eruption left behind a wake of destruction. This 23 November map shows the lava extent and destroyed buildings (red dots) at the time.

Map showing the extent of lava from the 2021 Cumbre Vieja volcanic eruption and buildings destroyed by lava, as of 2021/11/23 (from Wikimedia Commons)

The final lava extent was even larger, covering at least 1,040 hectares (2,570 acres). It increased the island’s size by 119 acres, destroyed almost 3,000 buildings and wrecked businesses and banana plantations.

Interactive Open Street map of the Cumbre Vieja lava extension, snapshot on 31 Dec 2021 (from Wikimedia Commons)

But there was a side benefit. In October 2021 “all hotels, hostels, guest-houses at La Palma were fully booked on account of the large number of tourists traveling there wanting to see the volcano.”

Visitors watch the Cumbre Vieja eruption, 31 Oct 2021 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Thanks to Cumbre Vieja’s Christmas gift the hard work of rebuilding can begin. “The Spanish government has promised $255 million in assistance for people living on the island.

La Palma will have a happy new year.

For more information and photos see:

(photos and maps from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Flying Only When Necessary

Interior of a moving van + JetBlue landing at Las Vegas (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

7 December 2021

In Case You Missed It.

Greater roadrunner, running (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) normally runs 15 mph to capture prey or faster in short spurts. He can’t fly well, just extended-wing glides, so walking takes him everywhere he wants to go. Around humans he can be so curious that he gets into trouble.

Last month while a family was packing a moving van in Las Vegas, a curious roadrunner walked into the van when they weren’t watching. The doors closed, the trip began, and the roadrunner was trapped inside for four days. He was discovered when they unpacked the van in Westbrook, a suburb of Portland, Maine.

The roadrunner traveled by land from Las Vegas to Portland, Maine (map from Wikimedia Commons, alterd)

Volunteers transported the roadrunner to Avian Haven in Freedom, Maine (another hour and a half drive) where he got expert care. Avian Haven tells his story here:

The roadrunner recovered so well that nine days later he boarded a direct flight from Boston to Las Vegas and was released in his old neighborhood by Nevada Department of Wildlife. The video shows his release in real time, then repeats in slow motion. I think he ran out of the carrier faster than 15 mph.

Though roadrunners prefer to travel on the ground, 6.5 hours in an airplane sure beats four days in a moving van. As the Audubon Guide to North American Birds explains:

The roadrunner walks and runs on the ground, flying only when necessary.

p.s. See news about the roadrunner at News3LV: His discovery in Maine: Roadrunner, going-faster, ends up in Maine after hitchhike, His Nevada neighborhood: Roadrunner Road Trip takes accidental cross country trip to Maine , His return: Roadrunner arrives home in Las Vegas after stowaway trip to Maine.

(Roadrunner news embedded from Facebook, map and photos from Wikimedia Commons. The first three photos are NOT from the actual event.)

Very Tiny Possums

Adult male honey possum, Tarsipes rostratus from Scott National Park in the southwest of Western Australia in torpor (photo by Don Bradshaw via

The honey possum (Tarsipes rostratus), is a tiny species of marsupial that feeds on the nectar and pollen of a diverse range of flowering plants in southwest Australia.

Who is the other cute possum mentioned in the tweet above?

The little pygmy-possum (Cercartetus lepidus) is the world’s smallest possum, as small as a mouse and considered a threatened species in South Australia.

Government of South Australia

After the 2019 bushfires on Kangaroo Island, Australia, scientists feared the little pygmy possum was dead. Instead…

Definitely cute!

(honey possum photo from; tweets embedded from @LettsGetSnakes and @BBCWorld)

Singing Butchers in Australia’s Spring

Gray butcherbirds in a garden in Brisbane, Australia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

12 November 2021

While it’s fall in North America it’s spring in Australia and nesting season for birds. One bird in particular has a loud flute-like voice that it uses for claiming territory.

Grey butcherbirds (Cracticus torquatus) are carnivorous songbirds, larger than robins and smaller than grackles. Their hooked beaks, like those of northern shrikes, help them eat small birds and lizards. Yet when they sing duets or in groups it sounds as clear as a flute.

Wikipedia describes their songs:

All members of the territorial group contribute to the territorial song, a loud and rollicking song with both musical and harsh elements. The song can be sung by only one member, but more often it is sung in duet or as a group. Some duets are antiphonal where it is not obvious that two or more birds are singing. Most songs are sung antiphonally with different group members singing different phases sequentially, with sometimes some overlap. Some songs have been known to last up to 15 minutes. During this time, there is no vocal interaction with groups from other territories.

Wikipedia account of Grey Butcherbird

The grey butcherbirds’ harsh whining reminds me of grackles. Their melodious songs are like nothing else.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. video from PittwaterEcowarriors on YouTube)

Being Near Water Makes Us Happy

Verde River at Box Bar Recreation Area, Arizona 23 Oct 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

1 November 2021

When I visited Arizona in October the place I loved the best was along the Verde River at Box Bar Recreation Area in the Tonto National Forest northeast of Scottsdale. When I look back at my photos I realize why. The view and sound of water made me happy.

Above, the Verde River reflects the sky. Below, three wild horses sip water on the left bank (look above the arc of the sagging tree).

Shallow rapids in the Verde River, wild horses in the distance at Box Bar Recreation Area, Arizona, 23 Oct 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Studies have shown that being in, near, or on water makes us happy. In the 2015 book Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols describes …

The immeasurable sense of peace that we feel around water is what Nichols calls our “blue mind” — a chance to escape the hyper-connected, over-stimulated state of modern day life, in favor of a rare moment of solitude.

Conde Nast Traveler: Being near water really does make us happier

We often vacation near water, perhaps not realizing that we choose these locations for their sense of calm. My favorite vacation spot, Acadia National Park in Maine, is very calming with abundant water views.

Somes Sound, Acadia National Park, Sept 2010 (photo by Kate St. John)
Jordan Pond, Acadia National Park, Sept 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Even places far from the coast like Pittsburgh take advantage of water views with river trails, ponds and lakes. That’s why Duck Hollow and Schenley Park’s Panther Hollow Lake are such a draw for us.

The Monongahela River at Duck Hollow, 25 Oct 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)
Schenley Park, Panther Hollow Lake (photo by Kate St. John)

“When we are by the water it…cuts us off from the rattle and hum of modern society,” says Nichols. “Moving water is expert at masking noise, especially the sound of the human voice,” he says, noting that the human voice is considered the number one source of workplace stress.

Conde Nast Traveler: Being near water really does make us happier

The sound of human voices makes us anxious? Here’s the sound of Phipps Run at Schenley Park to calm us down.

The forecast is sunny. Spend time near water.

Read more about how water calms us in this Conde Nast article or at The Guardian: Why Time Spent Near Water is the Secret to Happiness.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Eat Sparingly

Barrel cactus with fruit, Reach 11 Recreation Area, Phoenix AZ, 24 Oct 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

1 November 2021

Most intriguing on my daily walks last week in Phoenix were the barrel-shaped yellow fruits atop fishhook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni). I missed the flowering (click here to see) but the fruits may persist for more than a year after the flowers fade into dried brown tufts on top of the fruits.

Barrel cactus fruit (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A closer look shows a few seeds remaining where each fruit broke off.

Seeds underneath barrel cactus fruit, Reach 11 Recreation Area, Phoenix AZ, 24 Oct 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

There were no fruits on the ground near this specimen at Reach 11 Recreation Area, probably because the park has so many javelinas. I saw the footprints of these peccaries (not pigs) but didn’t see any of the animals. Here’s what one looks like in a photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Javelina in Phoenix (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Javelinas and squirrels eat the lemony-flavored fruits and some websites say we can eat them too, but sparingly. The fruit is mucilaginous like okra. The cactus contains oxalic acid, a poison that causes nausea and diarrhea in low doses and death in high doses …

… which might explain the other evidence left behind by the javelinas. Were the javelinas sick to their stomachs?

“That meal was great,” said the javelinas, “but I feel a little whuugh.”

(photos from Kate St. John and Wikimedia Commons)

Butterflies on Broom

American snout butterfly on desert broom, Box Bar Recreation Area, Arizona, 23 Oct 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

30 October 2021

While visiting Arizona I noticed that one plant in particular attracted lots of butterflies. The plant above was covered in snouts (Libytheana carinenta) though only one shows up in my photo.

Eventually I learned that the plant is desert broom (Baccharis sarothroides), a dioecious shrub with very different male and female flowers (male on left, female on right below). The male flowers get all the attention from butterflies.

Male and female flowers on desert broom, Box Bar Recreation Area, Tonto National Forest, 23 Oct 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

It’s hard to imagine how the female flowers become pollinated when nothing seems to visit them.

Next month after the flowers are fertilized the seeds will be ready to disperse. I’m sorry I’ll miss the period when the brooms look fluffy.

(photos by Kate St. John)