Archive for the 'Beyond Bounds' Category

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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Nov 19 2013

An Eagle Like A Crane

In Africa there’s a bird of prey with legs so long he looks like a crane.

Though the secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius) can fly he prefers to walk as he browses for food in the underbrush.  His legs are so long he has to crouch to get his beak to the ground.

A scorpion is a snack, a mongoose is a meal.  Secretary birds even eat poisonous snakes, adders and cobras, which they stun and kill by stomping with their feet.

Perhaps that’s why these birds are so tall.  Their bodies are out of reach of their dangerous prey.

I love to watch them walk:  crane-like eagles with black knee-pants.


(video from WildlifeVideoChannel on YouTube)

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Nov 06 2013

Magic Eyes

Published by under Beyond Bounds,Mammals

When lights shine on an animal’s eyes at night, what color is reflected back at you?

For cats it’s green.  For possums it’s red.  For arctic reindeer it depends on the time of year!

The tapetum lucidum in reindeer’s eyes changes color to cope with the bright light of summer and low light of winter.  In summer their eyes reflect gold, in winter they look blue.

This cool effect was discovered by a team from University College London and University of Tromsø, Norway thanks to funding from BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council).

Watch the video above and read more about the study here at


(video from BBSRC via


p.s. Reindeer have two other amazing traits: (1) They can see ultraviolet light and (2) They have no circadian rhythm.

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Oct 18 2013

The Virtuoso

Published by under Beyond Bounds

The weather changed and it feels like fall today in Pittsburgh.  The warblers have left, the sparrows are migrating, and none of the birds are singing.

On the other side of the world it’s spring and time to sing.

In the video above a male Australian magpie sings his very best imitations, a quiet serenade in a back garden.

Can you recognize the sounds he’s imitating?  Listen for dog barks and budgie sounds.

Quite a virtuoso.

(video by candykim22 from YouTube)

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Oct 17 2013

Catch-22 For Cape Vultures

Cape vulture in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds love to perch on wires and power poles, the bigger the bird the bigger the wire.  Unfortunately this affinity poses a threat to very large birds because their long wings can touch two wires at the same time and electrocute them.  Vultures are especially vulnerable because they roost in large gregarious groups.  If they jostle their buddies too much … ooops!

Cape vultures (Gyps coprotheres) of southern Africa, like most Gyps species, are declining.  They are listed as threatened because of decreased carrion for their chicks, poisoning from medication in livestock carcasses, electrocution and collision with wires, and exploitation for traditional medicine/religion.

Cape vultures live a long time and reproduce slowly so significant losses of any kind pose a problem.  There are protected areas in southern Africa where the vultures aren’t exposed to so many threats but there is also a growing power grid.

W. Louis Phipps and his team decided to find out how cape vultures used the power grid so they affixed GPS trackers on nine cape vultures — five adults and four immatures — to see where they would go.  The results were somewhat surprising.

The cape vultures’ home range is larger than expected; some traveled more than 600 miles one way.  Given the opportunity to travel the power corridors, that’s what they did.  Cape vultures are cliff birds so the power towers gave them high perches and clear sight lines in formerly useless habitat.  The study also found that the vultures fed more often on private farmland than in protected areas.  (The vultures would say, “Well, that’s where the food was.”)

It’s the classic Catch-22.  The power corridors have expanded the cape vultures’ range but the wires sometimes kill them.  In a declining population it makes a difference.

For more information read the full study here at PLOS One.

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

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Sep 13 2013

Red Legs

Black guillemot in breeding plumage at Metinic Island, Maine (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

About the size of a pigeon, this northern alcid comes south to Maine for the winter.

I’ve seen black guillemots fishing close to rocky shores.  Some are still in their black-and-white breeding plumage (above). Most have changed to mottled white for winter.

Black guillemot in winter plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In either case they have bright red legs that match the insides of their mouths.

I can see their red legs through the water.

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

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Aug 02 2013

8 Minutes at the Yukon Delta

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Early this month Cornell Lab of Ornithology featured this gorgeous video in their eNewsletter.

The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge is the breeding ground for birds from every continent on earth and the only place where four threatened/endangered species breed.

Learn about the delta and see its beautiful birds in just eight minutes.

(video by Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

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Jul 24 2013

Has Used A Motorcyle

Aplomado falcon (photo from

Some raptors have special techniques for finding food.  This one has used trains and motorcycles.

Aplomado falcons (Falco femoralis) are native to grassland and marshland from Mexico to South America where they eat birds, insects and small vertebrates.  Sometimes they hunt while soaring or from a perch but when hunting birds they prefer to fly fast through thickets to flush them from cover. This technique is similar to a Coopers hawk.

Mated pairs like to hunt cooperatively.  The male makes a distinctive “chip” sound to call his mate to a hunt.  Sometimes the female will even come off the nest to participate.  The male corners the prey by hovering above the thicket.  The female flies through and flushes it.

When his mate can’t come out to hunt, what’s a guy to do?  Borrow a motorcycle.

Aplomados have figured out that our large, loud vehicles scare small birds into flight.  According to Birds of North America online, one researcher reported an aplomado following a motorcycle to pick off small birds flushed from the side of the road.  Another reported a falcon flying with a train and switching sides to check out the ditches.

These falcons were extirpated from the U.S. in the 1950’s and only recently made a comeback in New Mexico and south Texas, partly on their own and partly thanks to reintroduction programs.

When I travel southwest to find an aplomado I wonder … will it help to watch for motorcycles?


(photo from

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Jul 20 2013

Mr. Gorgeous

Indigo Bunting, male (photo by Shawn Collins)

Beautiful and blue, a male indigo bunting poses for a photograph.



(photo by Shawn Collins)

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