Black phoebe (photo by Steve Valasek)
North America’s western birds are often similar to their eastern cousins.
Based on color you might mistake this black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) for a very dark junco but his body shape and habits match the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe).
Notice his flycatcher beak (not a seed-eating beak) and slightly angular head. Like the eastern phoebe he perches prominently and upright. If we could see him in motion, he’d be fly catching. Right now he has a message for hikers. 😉
You’ll have to go west if you want to see this bird. Native to southwestern Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico and southwest Texas, the black phoebe barely migrates. You can find him year round in Central and South America, too.
Click here for his range map.
(photo by Steve Valasek)
Tiny and jewel-like, hummingbirds are “super-birds.” They beat their wings 80 times per second and fly backwards and upside down. And that’s only the start.
Next Wednesday we’ll get to see these super birds at their best on PBS NATURE’s season premiere: Super Hummingbirds.
Filmed in Columbia, Peru and Costa Rica, the program showcases surprising information about hummingbirds’ lives.
- Their tongues open lengthwise to gather nectar using unique forked tips.
- Many live high-speed lives in thin air at 16,000 feet in the Andes Mountains.
- Male long-billed hermit hummingbirds in Costa Rica gather in leks to sing for a mate.
A side trip to Arizona captured the Costa’s hummingbird courtship ritual. During the male’s sky dance he splays out his purple gorget to impress his potential mate. The screenshot below is just a hint at his beauty. He’s amazing in the video.
Male Costa’s hummingbird sky-dances for a female (screenshot from PBS NATURE’s Super Hummingbirds)
Watch Super Hummingbirds next Wednesday, October 12 on PBS NATURE at 8pm (Eastern time). In Pittsburgh, it’s on WQED.
And while you’re waiting for next Wednesday, get your “hummingbird fix” at Cornell Lab’s West Texas Hummingbird Cam near Fort Davis, Texas. Click here to watch.
(Super Hummingbirds video and screenshot from PBS NATURE)
Eastern screech-owl, Maumee Bay State Park, Ohio,11 May 2016 (photo snapped by Carlos Bethancourt using Kate St. John’s cellphone)
Back in May I saw an eastern screech-owl snoozing in a nestbox at Maumee Bay State Park, Ohio. His photo, above, is on my cellphone but I can’t take credit for its beauty.
I have all the tools to create this photo — a bird scope and a cellphone — but I don’t have the skill yet. I watched bird guide Carlos Bethancourt set my cellphone on the scope (without a scope adapter), manipulate the screen, and take three beautiful pictures.
Carlos made it look easy but I can’t get my cellphone to behave. My two best attempts at photographing a robins’ nest look like this.
Closeup of baby robins in a nest, 9 Jul 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)
Baby robin in a nest partially obscured by leaves (photo by Kate St. John)
I need a lot more practice to make it perfect.
(owl photo by Carlos Bethancourt using Kate St. John’s cellphone, robins’ photos by Kate St. John)
Mountain bluebird (photo by Elaine R. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons)
When my friend Chuck Tague led an outing he’d ask us at the end, “What was your Best Bird?” Now that I’m back from Montana I’ve made a list. (The photos are from Wikimedia Commons.)
Best of the Best: Mountain bluebird. While standing next to a short spruce at Logan Pass, I saw a Life Bird(*) fly in and perch just above me. This bluest Bird of Happiness completes the trio of bluebird species in North America: eastern, western and mountain.
Two of my Best Birds were named for explorers, Lewis and Clark.
I’d seen a Lewis’s woodpecker fly by the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch on October 20, 2002 (very unusual!) but in Missoula I was hungry to see more. My friend Keith Kuhn asked a resident if we could walk across her property to the shore of the Bitterroot River where they’d been reported the day before. She was very accommodating when he said “Lewis’s woodpecker.” The birds come to her suet feeder. It was a thrill to see three pink-bellied woodpeckers fly-catching over the river.
Lewis’s Woodpecker from Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)
Clark’s nutcracker resembles a woodpecker but he’s actually a Corvid who stores and eats pine nuts. We saw a pair of them fly over Logan Pass, calling and chasing each other.
Clark’s nutcracker (photo by Simon Wray, Oregon Department of FIsh and Wildlife via Wikimedia Commons)
I was afraid I wouldn’t see an American dipper but I shouldn’t have worried. Because they were nesting we saw adult dippers gathering food and a fledgling waiting for its next meal at St. Mary’s Falls. Very good looks! (Click here to see one swim.)
American dipper (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
In only eight days I saw 105 species and 11 Life Birds in western Montana. It was hard to pick just four of the Best!
(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)
(*) A “Life Bird” is a species you see for the first time in your life.
Varied thrush (photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)
Spring starts late in the northern Rockies so many birds are still singing here in Glacier National Park. Fortunately the varied thrush is one of them.
In the breeding season the varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius) is a shy bird of mature western forests. He sings from the top of a conifer for 10 to 15 minutes but the trees are so tall that he’s hard to find. If he wasn’t singing we’d never know he’s there.
His song consists of one note that lasts two seconds. He pauses 3 to 20 seconds and then sings again, a different note. The disembodied sound echoes in the canyons.
Like all thrushes his syrinx allows him to blend two sounds so his note has a burry quality. It sounds like this:
This song is unique in North America and easy to identify by ear.
Just one note.
(photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)
Galahs in southern Australia. Click the image to see the video (screenshot from Vimeo by the green eye)
We haven’t had wild parrots in Pennsylvania since the Carolina parakeet(*) was extirpated in the 1800’s … and our lives are poorer for it.
In Australia some parrots are so common that they’re overlooked or considered pests. The galahs (Eolophus roseicapillus) fall into that category.
Click on the screenshot to watch them in southern Australia. You’ll recognize a familiar introduced species grazing with them. Enjoy stunning cockatoos at the 1:20 mark.
Parrots are gorgeous.
(screenshot of galahs from video by the green eye)
(*)The last Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo on February 21, 1918. That’s also where the last passenger pigeon died three and a half years earlier on September 1, 1914.
Scarlet ibis, little blue heron, Venezuela (photo by barloventomagico via Flicker)
If you’re in the right place at the right time you can find herons in red and blue!
Barloventomagico photographed this scarlet ibis and little blue heron at El Cedral Ranch in southern Venezuela.
All they need is a large yellow bird to make up the primary colors. In Venezuela, which bird would that be?
(photo by barloventomagico via Flicker)
The bluest bird. But only a subspecies? (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
This is a blue bird but he’s not a bluebird.
He used to be in the thrush family, just like our eastern bluebirds, but he’s been reclassed as an Old World flycatcher (Muscicapidae).
He is from the Old World. He breeds in the Himalayas at 9,800-14,500 ft and migrates downhill to spend the winter at 4,900-8,200 ft. This particular bird was photographed in winter in the mountains of Thailand.
But who is he?
When the photo was taken he was called a Himalayan bluetail (Tarsiger rufilatus) but his species distinction is up in the air. Though he’s a short-distance migrant and much bluer, he’s under consideration as a subspecies of the orange-flanked bush-robin (Tarsiger cyanurus). For now his old exotic name has disappeared.
He’s not a bluebird. He’s not even a Himalayan bluetail.
(This is a Featured photo on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)
Narwhals “tusking” (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Did you know there’s a whale with a horn like a unicorn?
The narhwal (Monodon monoceros) is an arctic whale, closely related to the beluga whom it resembles.
Close relatives: Beluga whale and narwhal (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)
Like the beluga, it has teeth though it doesn’t use them for chewing. All but two of the teeth are vestigial but one of those, the left canine, grows though the male’s upper lip spiraling counter-clockwise, straight out, in a single tusk as much as nine feet long.
The tusk is not a sword. Instead, like our teeth it’s made up of layers but it’s hollow inside and much more sensitive. The outer layer is permeable, allowing seawater to pass through the dentin into the hollow core filled with millions of nerves. Scientists know the tusks can sense salinity but they probably can sense a lot more. When narwhals surface to breathe and rub tusk to tusk they’re not fighting, they’re communicating.
Narwhals are so specialized it may lead to their extinction. They live only in the Arctic Ocean where they depend on its icy habitat for food and shelter. They roam in pods of 5-10 individuals and may migrate in groups of 1,000 but they seem more loyal to their favorite sites than to following their food. As climate change heats the water and melts the arctic ice, narwhals will have less food and fewer places to live. Like the polar bear, narwhals are threatened by climate change.
If or when this whale goes extinct it may pass into mythology, like the unicorn.
Unicorn in the Book of the properties of Bartholomew the Englishman, early fifteenth century (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)
(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)
Yellow-headed caracara on capybara (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Hawk on pig? Well, almost…
Caracara on capybara.
The bird is a yellow-headed caracara (Milvago chimachima), a member of the falcon family native to South America(*) and similar in size to a Cooper’s hawk.
The mammal is a capybara (Hydrochoeris hydrochaeris), the world’s largest rodent. Its scientific name is Greek for “water pig.” Its English name means “eats slender leaves” in the extinct Tupi language of Brazil.
Semi-aquatic, vegetarian, and closely related to the guinea pig, capybaras swim a lot. They eat grass and aquatic plants which fortunately wear down their continuously growing teeth. They also eat their own feces to get more nutrition out of their partially digested food.
Capybaras are big. They stand as tall as a German shepherd but of course they’re not the same shape and they weigh a lot more. For a sense of scale, here’s a group of capybaras grazing in a park in Brazil.
Capybaras grazing at Parque Barigüi, Curitiba, Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
These groups are typical. Capybaras are very social and live with 10-20 and up to 100 other individuals. The round bump on their snouts is a scent gland called a morillo which they rub on everything to say “I’m here.” They also use anal scent glands and urine for the same purpose. Obviously capybaras do not make good pets.
As for the bird, why is the caracara on the capybara?
More on that tomorrow.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals.)
(*) Both the bird and the mammal have increased their range into southern Central America.