Nature observers and webcam lovers! Here’s an opportunity to go on a virtual safari and contribute to science from the comfort of your home.
The University of Minnesota has been studying lions in Africa’s Serengeti for over 45 years. Several years ago, in an effort to determine the population of other species in lion country, they installed 225 motion-detection cameras to record all the animals, both day and night, that pass by the study sites.
They now have thousands and thousands of photographs that contain an animal of interest … but which animal? And how many? And what are they doing? Are there Wildebeest? Zebras? Serval cats? Eland? Guinea fowl? Grant’s gazelles (above)?
The task of identifying and counting the animals in so many photos was too huge for just a few people so they teemed up with Zooniverse to launch the Snapshot Serengeti website. It’s a citizen science project and you can help.
Visit snapshotserengeti.org to see the photos. Try the tutorial. Learn how to identify the animals and how to use the clues for animals you’ve never seen before. Then checkmark three items: what species, how many, what they’re doing. Click Finish and you’re onto the next photo.
Of the two Zooniverse projects I’ve tried so far I like this the best. At first I wasn’t very good at wildebeest vs. eland vs. buffalo but I quickly got better. I could really tell I’m a “bird person” when I was excited to see two guinea fowl, and then a secretary bird!
Pictured above, European turtle doves (Streptopelia turtur) resemble North America’s mourning doves but are more slender and colorful. They breed in Europe and western Asia, spend the winter in sub-Saharan Africa (see map).
Turtle doves used to be very plentiful but are now in serious decline in Europe. As of 2007, their population had decreased 62% since the early 1980′s. Scientists attribute this to changes in farm practices that eliminated the weeds and seeds these doves depend on for food, and the over-hunting of turtle doves in Mediterranean countries as the birds pass through on migration.
The decline in Europe is so severe that birders fear they are headed for extinction on the continent that immortalized them in a Christmas song.
Fortunately, turtle doves are not declining in western Asia so they won’t go extinct worldwide.
In the future turtle doves may be as mysterious a gift in Europe as they are to us.
(photo by Yuvalr via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)
Though I visit Maine every September and even take pelagic trips in the Gulf of Maine, I have never seen a dovekie. That’s because they breed on islands in the High Arctic (Baffin Island, Greenland, Iceland, etc) and don’t leave their breeding grounds until late August. At that point they’re molting and flightless so they drift on the southbound current to spend the winter in the North Atlantic. They usually aren’t seen off the coast of Maine until November.
Dovekies (Alle alle), also called little auks, are cute little seabirds the size of starlings but much fatter — two to three times the weight of a starling. They are so numerous that there are tens of millions of them in the North Atlantic in winter.
The two shown above are in breeding plumage at Svalbard. Their eyes are black but look white in this photo because they’re half closed. Perhaps they’re whispering sweet nothings to each other.
In the U.S. we only see dovekies in winter plumage. Here’s a video of one off the coast of North Carolina in January that gives you a sense of how tiny these birds are.
In the breeding season dovekies depend on cold water and ice. Copepods are their favorite food — sometimes their only food — so they locate their breeding colonies near polynyas where copepods are plentiful. In a curious way they’re an edge species, preferring the fertile edge where ice meets open water.
Dovekies are so numerous that you’d think that nothing could threaten their survival. Unfortunately they are easy to hunt at their breeding colonies and global climate change may lower their breeding success.
But who knows? Maybe The Big Melt will help dovekies for a while.
(photo by Michael Haferkamp on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)
Here’s an Asian pheasant, a Temminck’s tragopan, that normally looks vermillion, black, white and brown.
When he’s in an amorous mood he shakes his head to begin his courtship display. Two long blue horns pop up from his head and the small blue patch under his chin drops down to reveal an intricate iridescent blue lappet.
He opens his wings, puffs his body, and continues to shake his head to perfect his display.
And just in case his lady doesn’t notice, he clacks his beak.
Look at me!
Click here to see another Temminck’s tragopan with an even bigger, better lappet. In a contest between the two, I bet the ladies will pick the guy with the bigger bib.
What will we lose when the ice disappears? What birds depend on the Arctic climate?
I don’t know if this bird will suffer but I can tell you it depends on the tundra and tundra depends on ice.
The long-tailed jaeger (Stercorarius longicaudus) is a holarctic bird who spends the winter over the open ocean in the southern hemisphere, often at the edge of the continental shelf. Because they migrate over the ocean, long-tailed jaegers are exceedingly rare in Pennsylvania having been documented only three times.
Long-tailed jaegers nest in the Arctic where their breeding success depends on an abundance of lemmings and voles. In the High Arctic of North America they depend on a single species: the collared lemming. If there aren’t enough lemmings, long-tailed jaegers don’t even bother to breed.
As the ice melts, the tundra will change and eventually be overtaken by woody plants. Will this reduce the population of lemmings?
If it does, long-tailed jaegers will stop breeding and eventually disappear … with the ice.
(photo by Jerzy Strzelecki on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)
Rooks are Eurasian relatives of crows, found from Ireland to Japan. At a distance they look like American crows with very long beaks but this is an illusion. Their beaks look long because the skin on their faces is naked and matches the beak color.
Close up the skin is obvious and a bit disturbing if you’re not used to it. When they perch with wings hunched and feathers puffed they resemble the Grim Reaper. Actually, artists probably chose rooks as their model for the Grim Reaper and not the other way around.
Like blue jays, rooks can store food in their throat bags, then carry it elsewhere. The throat becomes distended as you can see briefly in the video above.
Rooks are more social than their American relatives. They nest communally in the treetops in collections called rookeries. In North America we have no rooks but our herons use the same nesting technique so we call their groupings heron rookeries.
Like crows, rooks are curious and really smart but this can make them annoying. To a rook, it’s normal to make holes to hide food but this is a liability if you keep one indoors. Fortunately, few people do.
Early this year I enjoyed reading Corvus: A Life With Birdsby Esther Woolfson in which she tells the story of her rook named Chicken, a very smart and engaging bird, but I agree with the Daily Mail which said, “Yet perhaps the best measure of Woolfson’s candidacy for sainthood is the permission she has given Chicken to dismantle the plaster and lath on her hallway wall so that the rook has its own food storage space.”