Nov 08 2014

He Also Says His Name

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Great Kiskadee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Almost every South Texas bird I’ve mentioned this week has a name that describes his song.

The green jay has onomatopoeic Spanish names, the chachalaca calls “cha-cha-lac,” and the great kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus), above, is easy to find because he always says his name.

Click here to hear.

 

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

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Nov 07 2014

Cha Cha Lac!

Watch the video and you’ll hear this bird say his name.

The plain chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) is the same size and shape as a female ring-necked pheasant but unlike the pheasant it lives in forests and scrublands from the Lower Rio Grande Valley to Costa Rica.

The chachalaca’s call has been described as “loud and simply indescribable,” deafening, ear-splitting, and “ranking with the call of the howler monkey” for shear loudness. (*Descriptions are from this link at Birds of North American Online)

The video shows only one bird calling so you might wonder, “What’s the big deal?”  To really understand the sound click here to hear a flock calling just after sunrise in Starr County, Texas.

At the beginning of the recording you’ll hear high falsetto calls. The females and immature males have high voices while adult males have deep ones because their tracheas are more than twice as long and wider in diameter.  Young males, like human teenagers, have to wait for their voices to change.

Chachalaca’s do their loudest whooping in the spring, so I won’t have to cover my ears when I encounter this bird … But I may have to wait for the rain to stop before he puts in an appearance. (It’s been raining in South Texas for 3 days!)

Cha-cha-lac!

 

(video posted by Robert Straub on YouTube)

 

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Nov 06 2014

Introduce Me

Published by under Birds of Prey,Travel

Aplomado falcon, Laguna Atascosa NWR, Texas (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They’re as long as a peregrine but only half their weight.  They fly like accipiters or even nighthawks.  They hunt cooperatively and can use motorcycles to flush prey.

Aplomado falcons (Falco femoralis) used to nest in savannas, grasslands and shrub-steppe from Arizona to the lower Rio Grande Valley but they disappeared from the U.S. in 1952 due to habitat loss and DDT.  They were listed as endangered in 1986.

In 1987 The Peregrine Fund established an aplomado reintroduction program similar to the captive breeding program that restored the peregrine.  Since the 1990’s they’ve hacked 1,500 aplomado chicks in South Texas but restoration has been slow and difficult because the young birds face so many dangers in the wild. 

The aplomado is still on the Endangered Species list but now breeds again in South Texas. To help the young survive The Peregrine Fund provides special nesting boxes which the adults prefer because the boxes protect their chicks.

Thanks to the reintroduction program I now have the chance to see an aplomado falcon at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.

He’s my goal this week.  Introduce me!

 

(photo by Elaine R. Wilson from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

p.s. I saw one today, 11/6/2014. Yay!

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Nov 05 2014

Bad Tempered?

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Green jay, Cyanocorax yncas, Venezuela (photo by Dilankf from Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever seen a green jay?  I haven’t yet, but I’ve haven’t been in his native range until today.

While my husband holds the fort at home I’ve flown to the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen, Texas, just inside the northern edge of the green jay’s range. I hope I see this Life Bird.  He’s common in Central and South America but you have to be in this corner of Texas to see him in the U.S.

In Texas Cyanocorax yncas is called a green jay but many jays are green in Central and South America so elsewhere he’s called an Inca jay, Querrequerre, Quinquín, Querqués or Carriqui.

The bird in the photo above is a “querrequerre” from Venezuela.  His South American population is separated from the Central American group by 900 miles so a querrequerre looks slightly different and uses different habitats than the green jay of Texas.  He’s larger, has a crest, and lives in humid forests instead of mesquite thickets and open woodland as they do in Texas.

He also has an attitude that’s given his onomatopoeic Spanish name an additional meaning.  In Venezuela querrequerre is slang for a grumpy person with a bad temper who’s easily upset and angered.

An article by Eduardo Lopez for Audubon of Venezuela explains how the jay got this bad name.  As an example, he tells the story of a ranger at El Ávila National Park who tried to rescue a trapped querrequerre and was attacked by the querrequerre’s family.  The birds drew blood!   Obviously it was a big misunderstanding but the ranger swore he would never help those jays again.  (If you can’t read Spanish, use Goggle Chrome or Google Translate when you click on this link to Lopez’ article.)

Do green jays in Texas have bad tempers?

I hope to find out in the next five days.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, taken in Warairarepano National Park, Caracas, Venezuela.  Click on the image to see the original.)

p.s.  Some day the South American Cyanocorax yncas may be called a separate species.

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Nov 04 2014

How Starlings Stick Together

Watch this video of a starling flock evading a peregrine falcon in Torino, Italy and you’ll see some truly amazing coordinated flying.

How do starlings wheel and turn in such tight balls?  How do they compress and expand without hitting each other?  The mystery has puzzled humans since the first time we saw it and recent explanations that each bird keyed only on his nearest wing-neighbors did not seem to answer the problem.

Now a study published in July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains their behavior in an elegant model.

Using agent based modeling of self-propelled particles researchers from the University of Warwick’s Department of Physics created a simulation that behaves just like a starling flock attacked by a hawk.

Their video below plays the simulation twice.  Isn’t it uncanny how much this matches what the flock is doing above?

Changing patterns of light and dark within the flock are the key to each bird’s movement.  They all want to be near each other but they need to see what they’re doing.  The team writes, “We show that large flocks self-organize to the maximum density at which a typical individual still can see out of the flock in many directions.”

Lead researcher Daniel Pearce explains the model’s rules: “Each bird is represented by a particle which each have an identical set of rules to follow (and likelihood of making a mistake). In this case the rules are (a) follow your nearest neighbour and (b) move towards the areas of the projection containing the most information. When lots of these particles are introduced, the result is a collective motion much like that of a real flock of birds.”

What is “information” in this context?  The technical answer is “the birds fly toward the resolved vector sum of all the domain boundaries.”  Hmmmm!

Click here to read more in Science Daily.

 

(peregrine-starling video by “greenkert” on YouTube. Simulation video by Daniel Pearce on YouTube.  Information from University of Warwick, Revealed: The mystery behind starling flocks” in ScienceDaily)

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Nov 03 2014

Siskin Surge

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Pine sisken (photo by Shawn Collins)

Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast predicted pine siskins would move south this winter but no one expected the numbers seen in eastern Pennsylvania in the third week of October.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary counted about 3,000 per day for several days, including 3,147 on October 23.  Andy Markel and Bill Oyler counted 739 heading southwest in Horse Valley, Franklin County on October 25.

Numbers were lower in western Pennsylvania where the largest count mentioned on PABIRDS was 50 on October 20 in Allegheny County.

Interestingly, Pittaway’s forecast accounts for this.  In his assessment of northern tree seed crops (i.e. finch food) he wrote:  “Spruce cone crops are variable in Ontario … East of Ontario cone crops are generally poor in the Atlantic Provinces, New York State, New Hampshire and other northern New England States.”  That means that pine siskins northeast of the Appalachians would certainly move through Pennsylvania while those directly north of Pittsburgh might find a good seed crop and not bother to fly this far south.

Though they’re still being reported in Pennsylvania the numbers are more normal now in random flocks of 15 to 20 — at least on PABIRDS.

Where will that surge of siskins end up?  West Virginia?  The Great Smoky Mountains (where it snowed already)?  It’s probably too soon to tell.

 

(photo by Shawn Collins, Crawford County, 2 November 2014)

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Nov 02 2014

Spider Whisperer?

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Kate St. John holding a tarantula (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Look at what’s walking on my hand!

On the night before Halloween at Wissahickon Nature Club Sarah Lyle taught us about Pennsylvania spiders and showed us her pet tarantulas.  Three of them were very tiny but two were … huge!

I am not a spider lover but Sarah’s enthusiasm for them is infectious.  When I first saw her tarantulas I thought, “No way will I handle one of those!” but by the end of the evening I did.

Dianne Machesney, who took this photo, called it “the fearless spider whisperer.”

Not!

My look of concentration is not spider whispering.  It’s intent focus on one thought:  “Do not do anything to upset this spider!”

Two of the hands in the photo are Sarah’s, gently corralling the tarantula so it doesn’t walk up my arm.

Whew!

 

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

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Nov 01 2014

Just Beechy

Published by under Winter Weeds & Trees

Golden beech leaves in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Golden beech leaves in Schenley Park.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Oct 31 2014

Wear A Mask

Published by under Crows, Ravens

Here’s a scary thought.  If you’re an enemy to crows, they remember your face and harass you.

John Marzluff from the University of Washington shows how they remember their enemies in this clip from A Murder of Crows.

He investigated the phenomenon because he, like other crow researchers, was routinely harassed by crows after he captured and banded their young.  Were they remembering his clothing?  No, they remembered his face.

Perhaps you or a friend have experienced this too.  For instance…

Mike Olaugh of Minneapolis left a comment on my blog about blue jays and added this note about crows.  “The Crows … are ubiquitous no matter the conditions. We are near a cemetery and they have lived there for a century. I learned when I first moved here 20 years ago to leave them alone. They ganged up on my car and dropped on it en masse for a whole season. (I was trying to get them to stop roosting across the alley.)”

The crows recognized Mike and did something to drive him nuts until he left them alone.

Moral of the story:  If you harass crows, you may have to wear a mask.

Happy Halloween.  ;)

 

(YouTube video excerpt from PBS NATURE posted by Simon and Schuster as a promo for Marzluff and Angell’s 2012 book Gifts of the Crow)

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Oct 30 2014

How To Open A Black Walnut

Published by under Mammals

Fox squirrel with partially open black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)

There’s a bumper crop of black walnuts in my neighborhood this month, so many that they’ve stained the sidewalk black.  They’re good to eat but how do you open them?

If you’re a human, you put on rubber gloves and safety glasses and hit the nuts with a hammer.  The first whack cracks the greenish-yellow husk that stains everything black, hence the gloves.

The husk is the easy part.  The shells are very, very hard to crack.  Some people suggest using a vise instead of a hammer to open the nuts but no matter what you do pieces of shell go flying, hence the safety glasses.

If you’re a squirrel you don’t have tools but you do have teeth.

Donna Foyle watched a fox squirrel open a black walnut outside her window.  The squirrels open peanuts in a flash but this black walnut took a long time.

The squirrel began by gnawing a hole on the side of the nut.
Fox squirrel opening a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)

“He quickly gnawed the shell, turning it, gnawing many times, turning it, gnawing almost in continuous quick motion, turning it again.  He never deliberately stopped gnawing to spit out the shredded shell,”  wrote Donna.

You can see he made the “sawdust” fly.  No goggles for him!
Fox squirrel making the sawdust fly as he opens a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)

After 40 minutes he’d made real headway.  The hole was a bowl from which he ate the nutmeat.
Fox squirrel opening a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)

Did he save the rest for later?

The squirrels in my neighborhood are eating fewer and saving more, burying them in everyone’s mulch.

 

 

(photos by Donna Foyle)

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