Archive for the 'Beyond Bounds' Category

Jan 04 2014

At The Top Of The Mountain

Black rosy-finch (photo by Steve Valasek)

Here’s a bird I hope to see some day … but I’ll have to go out of my way to find it.

The black rosy-finch (Leucosticte atrata) is an alpine bird from the American West that spends all his life at high elevation.  In the summer he nests on cliffs above the treeline in the Rockies.  In the winter he moves to lower mountaintops.

Steve Valasek photographed this one at a feeder at Sandia Crest, New Mexico … at the top of the mountain.

 

(photo by Steve Valasek)

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Dec 25 2013

Merry Christmas

Snow on Pyracantha (photo by Bob Muller, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

The colors of a Merry Christmas…

Pyracantha after a rare snowfall in Nags Head, North Carolina, February 2006 by Bob Muller.

 

(photo by Bob Muller (bobxnc), Creative Commons license via Flickr)

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Dec 20 2013

Penguins As Far As The Eye Can See

King penguin colony on Salisbury Plain, South Georgia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This week I read about colonial nesting in Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.  “About 13% of bird species, including most seabirds, nest in colonies.  Colonial nesting evolves in response to a combination of two environmental conditions: (1) a shortage of nesting sites that are safe from predators and (2) abundant or unpredictable food that is distant from safe nest sites.”

The book mentions king penguin colonies; sometimes they’re huge.  This one is on the Salisbury Plain of South Georgia, an island in a volcanic ridge that arcs from the southern tip of South America to the northern tip of Antarctica.  (Click here to see where it is on Google Maps.)

There are lots of king penguins in the photo above, but zoom out below and the number is stunning.  Half a million king penguins in one place!

King Penguins at Salisbury Plain, South Georgia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Obviously the advantages of living like this outweigh the disadvantages of occasional social strife, epidemics, or the crash of the food supply.

Imagine being in a place where there are penguins as far as the eye can see!

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals. Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 330 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)

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Dec 19 2013

Same But Different

Steller's jay at Sandia Peak, New Mexico (photo by Steve Valasek)

Recent photos by Steve Valasek in New Mexico reminded me that western birds are often very similar to their eastern cousins.  Unlike the ecologically equivalent birds who live on different continents but have similar habitat requirements, these live on the same continent but have different habitat requirements.

Here are two western birds that fit the bill.

This Steller’s jay perched on a feeder in the Sandia Mountains is recognizably similar to our blue jay but he lives in evergreen forests in the mountainous West.  The blue jay prefers oak forests because he loves acorns.  Both jays like to visit bird feeders.

Below, the mountain chickadee also lives in dry evergreen forests in the Western mountains. He looks like a black-capped chickadee except for his white eyebrows.  The black-capped chickadee is far less picky about habitat and can be found in deciduous and evergreen forests, residential neighborhoods, weedy fields and cattail marshes.  Because of this the black-capped has a wider range.

Mountain chickadee, Sandia Mountains, New Mexico (photo by Steve Valasek)

 

And finally, a seed-eating generalist, this dark-eyed junco shows how different he looks in the West.  He’s different but the same.

Dark-eyed Junco, Embudito Canyon, New Mexico (photo by Steve Valasek)

Juncos breed in northern or mountain forests but can be found in a wide variety of habitats in winter.

When I first started birding juncos like this one were listed as a separate species, the Oregon junco.  Since then evidence has shown that the slate-colored junco of the East, the Oregon junco of the West, and the “white-winged” and “gray-headed” juncos are different races of the same species, now called the dark-eyed junco.

There is still much scientific discussion about the “lumping” of the junco.  Given enough time and isolation eastern and western juncos could become separate species and settle the question for us.

 

(photos by Steve Valasek)

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Dec 14 2013

Wearing A Bad Toupee

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Boat-billed heron (photo by Charlie Hickey)

Here’s a bird you don’t see every day … unless you visit the National Aviary where they live in the Wetlands Room.

The boat-billed heron (Cochlearius cochlearius) is a strange-looking bird from the mangrove swamps of Central and South America.  Not only does he have an unusually fat bill but his head feathers resemble dark hair.

Charlie Hickey took this photo in Costa Rica and noticed immediately that the bird looks like he’s wearing a bad toupee.  Click here to read whose toupee Charlie’s reminded of.

 

(photo by Charlie Hickey)

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Dec 09 2013

Snowy Owl Respect

If you read PABIRDS you’ve seen this discussion and perhaps the video, but it’s well worth passing along.

This winter has quickly shaped up to be an “invasion” year for snowy owls. These big, beautiful birds are popping up in open spaces, on buildings and at shorelines across the northern United States.  On the PABIRDS listserv alone, at least 33 snowies have been reported in Pennsylvania since December 1 — about half of them at Presque Isle State Park.

Snowy owls “invade” in the winter when they’ve had a hugely successful breeding season up north because of super-abundant lemmings last summer.  Most of the visiting birds are young owls on their first trip away from home. They’ve come south to eat our abundant food and rest between meals.  Studies have shown this is a good move on their part.  Scott Wiedensaul points out that the vast majority eat well and return to the Arctic in spring.  Of those that die, the leading cause of death is trauma, not starvation.

But they shouldn’t be harassed. Last Saturday there were seven snowy owls at Presque Isle as well as birders, photographers and owl enthusiasts.  Most people kept a respectful distance but two photographers approached the owls and flushed them repeatedly even though observers warned them not to. This prompted Jerry McWilliams to write:

“Just a reminder to birders and photographers who are interested in observing or photographing the Snowy Owls. You should resist the urge, as we have all experienced, to try and approach too closely. The owl that visited my waterbird count this morning was very alert and did not remain in one spot for long. Between the Coyotes and enthusiastic humans, it is a challenge for these northern invaders to have a chance to rest and find a meal. Please come and enjoy them, but keep your distance and respect their needs.”

The disrespect is not limited to Pennsylvania.  A similar discussion occurred on NJBIRDS about incidents in New Jersey.

Presque Isle Audubon and the state park are doing something about it.   Presque Isle Audubon is organizing volunteers to alert visiting photographers and birders about owl etiquette as they enter the Gull Point Trail.  State Park rangers (DCNR) will also be monitoring the situation.

If you see people harassing wildlife, speak up or report them to park rangers.  If you would like to volunteer at the Gull Point Trail, click here for Presque Isle Audubon contact information.

A gentle reminder to respect the owls will go a long way.

 

(video by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, first published in 2010)

p.s. Click here to read an excellent explanation of wild bird reactions to humans — with a special emphasis on raptors and owls — by Julia Ecklar of the National Aviary.

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Dec 06 2013

Bird Equivalents

Tufted titmouse, Great tit (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s an interesting thought: Around the world there are birds with similar habitat and food requirements that are ecological equivalents to each other.  Though they live on different continents they occupy similar niches.  Sometimes they even look alike.

I was intrigued by this when I found a graphic on page 630 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill showing three sets of equivalent birds from North America and Europe.  Here they are:

Set #1.  The tufted titmouse in North America (at left above) is an ecological equivalent to the great tit in Europe (at right).

All About Birds says the tufted titmouse prefers “eastern woodlands below 2,000 feet elevation, including deciduous and evergreen forests. Tufted titmice are also common visitors at feeders and can be found in backyards, parks, and orchards.”

Europe’s great tit prefers similar habitat.  I wish our titmouse was as colorful.

 

Set #2.  Our black-capped chickadee (at left below) is equivalent to Europe’s willow tit (at right).

Again according to All About Birds, “Black-capped chickadees may be found in any habitat that has trees or woody shrubs, from forests and woodlots to residential neighborhoods and parks, and sometimes weedy fields and cattail marshes. They frequently nest in birch or alder trees.”

In Europe, look for the willow tit in these habitats.

Black-capped chickadee, Willow tit (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Set #3.  The chestnut-backed chickadee of the Pacific Northwest (at left below) is equivalent to the coal tit in Europe (at right).

All About Birds says, “Chestnut-backed chickadees are found in dense coniferous and mixed coniferous forests of the Pacific Coast. You can also find them in shrubs, trees, and parks of cities, towns, and suburbs.”

The coal tit has similar habitat requirements in Europe and fills a wider niche in Ireland where competing marsh, willow and crested tits aren’t present.

Chestnut-backed chickadee, Coal tit (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

 

There are many more ecologically equivalent species.  GrrlScientsist shows us Kenya’s ecological equivalent of the red-tailed hawk at this link.

Can you think of other bird equivalents?

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on these links to see the originals: tufted titmouse, great tit, black-capped chickadee, willow tit, chestnut-backed chickadee, coal tit.
Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 630 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.
)

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Dec 04 2013

In A Shrinking Bubble

Ethiopian bush crow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As things stand now this intelligent, resourceful, omnivorous bird may go extinct in the 21st century.  Why?  Because he lives in a shrinking bubble.

For a long time scientists could not figure out why the Ethiopian bush-crow (Zavattariornis stresemanni) lived in only one 6,000 square mile area of southern Ethiopia.   He’s really smart, eats anything, and nests cooperatively but the bush-crow does not expand his range even though the habitat bordering his domain appears to be exactly the same.

His size and threatened lifestyle resemble that of the Florida scrub-jay whose range was 7,000 square miles but an area of suitable habitat much smaller.  Scientists approached the bush-crow with the same tools they used on the scrub-jay and came up empty.  The bush-crow’s bordering habitat was the same.  Why didn’t the bush-crow use it?

Then in 2012 a team headed by Dr Paul Donald of the RSPB figured out that the Ethiopian bush-crow lives in a cool, dry climate bubble where the average temperature is less than 20oC (68oF).  Outside his range it’s hotter and he won’t go there.  Terrain and elevation created his zone but climate change is raising the temperature and the bush-crow’s bubble is shrinking.

If his problem was caused by loss of habitat, as it is for the Florida scrub-jay, laws and habitat restoration could increase the bush-crow’s available land but climate change is a much thornier problem requiring international political will.  This bird is endangered.

Right now there are about 9,000 breeding pairs of Ethiopian bush-crows on earth.  But for how long?

Click here to read about the Ethiopian bush-crow’s climate preference.  Click here for his range map.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Dec 01 2013

Pharoah’s Chicken

Pharoah's Chicken, Egyptian vulture (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

During this turkey weekend I found a bird called Pharoah’s Chicken, though he isn’t a chicken at all.

This large bird of prey is an Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) whose nickname refers to his use as a symbol of Egyptian royalty.

He lives in Europe, Asia and Africa but he no longer lives well.  Sadly he’s endangered, having declined by 50% in Europe in only 20 years (1980-2001) and drastically in India where there’s a vulture crisis caused by livestock antibiotics that are poisonous to the vultures.

This bird posed nicely for a photograph in a zoo in Spain.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Nov 24 2013

The Falcon That Laughs

Laughing Falcon (photo by Charlie Hickey)

Snakes seem to be a subtext on my blog lately.  Snakes caused the extirpation of the Guam rail, they’re one of many foods eaten by secretary birds, and now I’ve learned there’s a falcon in Central and South America that eats poisonous snakes and laughs.

The laughing falcon (Herpetotheres cachinnans) is named for his two most obvious traits.  Herpetotheres roughly means to “mow down snakes,” cachinnans means to “laugh immoderately.”

He captures snakes by watching from a perch, then pouncing to break their necks or behead them.  And he really does laugh.  Listen to this recording of a pair “singing” a duet.

Laughing falcons are about the size of peregrines and are often pictured with their head feathers raised, a pose that makes them resemble ospreys not falcons.  When they lower their head feathers, as in this photo on Wikimedia Commons, you can see their falcon family resemblance.

I first heard of this species when Charlie Hickey posted photos from his trip this month to Puntarenas, Costa Rica.  (Click here for Charlie’s photos.)  I wonder if it was hard to find this bird in Costa Rica.  According to BirdLife International the laughing falcon has declined drastically in some locations but has such a wide range that it has not yet been listed as “vulnerable.”

 

(photo by Charlie Hickey)

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