Archive for the 'Beyond Bounds' Category

Jan 25 2016

Unicorns At Sea

Published by under Beyond Bounds,Mammals

Narwhals

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)

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)

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)

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Jan 19 2016

Caracara, Capybara

Published by under Beyond Bounds,Mammals

Yellow-headed caracara on capybara (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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)

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.

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Jan 16 2016

Tanagers Bathing

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Grassland Yellow-Finch, Orange-fronted Yellow-Finch and Glaucous Tanager bathing in southern Venezuela (photo by barloventomagico, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

Birds bathing in southern Venezuela (photo by barloventomagico via Flickr)

They look like canaries, don’t they?

In Spanish the yellow ones are indeed called canaries “Canario,” yet all three are in the tanager family (Thraupidae), the second largest family of birds in the world.

Barloventomagico photographed them at El Cedral Ranch in southern Venezuela on December 30.  Here’s who they are from left to right:  Spanish, (Scientific name), English:

Though they’re tanagers they aren’t related to ours at all.  Our familiar scarlet, summer, western and hepatic tanagers (Piranga) are now in the Cardinal family (Cardinalidae).

What a confusion of names!

 

(photos by barloventomagico via Flickr, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original.)

p.s. A special shout out to Dr. Tony Bledsoe at the University of Pittsburgh!  His work on Sicalis DNA in the late 1980s proved that Sicalis are tanagers  — published in The Auk (105: 504-515) in July 1988 as: Nuclear DNA Evolution And Phylogeny of The New World Nine-Primaried Oscines.

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Jan 10 2016

Best Of The Birds: 2015

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Every year photographer Steve Gosser compiles his favorite bird photos into a retrospective video.  Here, in eight minutes, are his favorites from 2015.

How many you can identify?  Which ones are your favorites?

Thanks to Steve for sharing his fine photos.  They make me want to go out birding right now!

 

(photos and video by Steve Gosser)

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Dec 18 2015

Snowy Owls At Sea

Snowy Owl, Amherst Island, 2008 (photo by Kim Steininger)

Snowy Owl, Amherst Island 2008 (photo by Kim Steininger)

(A day late for Throw Back Thursday…)

Did you know that some snowy owls stay on the Arctic Ocean all winter?  Seven years ago satellite tracking technology revealed their unusual lifestyle.

Read more about the snowy owls who live on ice in the dark in this 2008 article:  Surprise! We hunt at sea.

 

p.s. Ever since the snowy owl irruption of 2013-2014, Project Snowstorm has satellite tagged and tracked some of the snowy owls who visit the Lower 48 States.  Click here to see maps and follow their stories of these amazing birds.

(photo by Kim Steininger)

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Dec 07 2015

The Golden Eye

Common goldeneye, female (photo by Francis C. Franklin via Wikimedia Commons)

Common goldeneye, female (photo ©Francis C. Franklin at Wikimedia Commons)

Even from afar, you can see how common goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula) earned their name.

Adult males have bright yellow eyes, females’ are pale yellow to white.  But their eyes aren’t always that color.

When they hatch, common goldeneye ducklings have gray-brown eyes that turn purple-blue, then blue, then green-blue as they age. By five months of age their eyes are a clear pale green-yellow.(*)

Francis C. Franklin took this exceptional photo of a female wintering in northwestern England.  Click here to see where Franklin found this beautiful duck.

 

(this Featured Picture at Wikimedia Commons is ©Francis C. Franklin, license CC-BY-SA-3.0. Click on the image to see the original.)

Common goldeneyes breed in the taiga of North America, Scandinavia and Russia. They’re found on both sides of the Atlantic.
(*) Eye color information quoted from All About Birds.

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Nov 16 2015

Tree Sparrows Are Misnamed

Eurasian tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eurasian tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Names are so confusing!

This bird looks like a house sparrow (Passer domesticus) but he’s not.  He’s a Eurasian tree sparrow and he’s the reason why our tree sparrows are called American tree sparrows.

Eurasian tree sparrows (Passer montanus) are native to Europe and Asia (of course) but about 15,000 of them live in the St. Louis area now.  In the 1870’s, 12 were imported from Germany and established a breeding population but they were never as successful as their aggressive cousins.

Passer montanus is 10% smaller than a house sparrow, has a brown (not gray) head, and a black ear patch.  Males and females look alike and the juveniles are just duller versions of the same.

Eurasian tree sparrows are doubly misnamed.  They nest in holes in buildings, not in trees, and they don’t live in the mountains but they have “tree” and “montanus” in their names.  That’s because house sparrows dominate the cities of Europe and pushed this sparrow to live in the open countryside where there are trees.  In Asia the “tree” sparrow lives in cities.

American tree sparrows are misnamed, too.  European settlers thought Spizella arborea resembled the Eurasian tree sparrow so they called ours “American tree sparrows” even though ours spend the winter in scrubby places, not trees, and breed and forage on the ground.

Do you think the American tree sparrow below looks like the Eurasian one above?  I don’t.

American tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American tree sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alas, they are all misnamed.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Nov 13 2015

Beware The Bored Bird

 

When highly intelligent birds are bored, watch out!

Keas (Nestor notabilis) are wild parrots on the South Island of New Zealand who love to explore and use their sharp beaks to open whatever they find. They’re not kept as pets because they literally will take your house apart.

Watch them take apart the police car.

 

Pet parrots invent similar projects when they’re bored. Give them something to do or they’ll destroy the woodwork!

 

p.s. This article was spawned by Ted Floyd’s mention of keas and Jack Solomon’s post of the police car video on Facebook. Thanks!

(video from YouTube)

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Nov 08 2015

Neck And Legs Extended

Greater Flamingoes, Walvis Bay, Namibia (photo by Yathin S Krishnappa from Wikimedia Commons)

Greater Flamingoes, Walvis Bay, Namibia (photo by Yathin S Krishnappa from Wikimedia Commons)

You’ll never see these birds in the wild in Pennsylvania.

Flying with legs and necks extended these greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) — an adult and sub-adult — are at Walvis Bay in Namibia, Africa.

Pennsylvania does have a large native bird that flies this way with neck and legs extended.  It breeds in western PA and has been seen in Crawford County recently.

Can you guess the species?

 

(photo by Yathin S Krishnappa from Wikimedia Commons.Click on the image to see the original)

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Sep 14 2015

In Powered Flight

Merlin, eastern US (photo by Wm.H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons)

Merlin, eastern USA (photo by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons)

This year in Maine I was lucky to see two merlins (Falco columbarius), each one a fleeting glance as the bird zoomed by on a mission.

The first one zipped past the Cadillac Mountain Hawk Watch, pumping his wings the entire time.  We watchers had to think quickly.  His shape said “Falcon,” his size and dark color said “Not kestrel,” his powerful flapping said “Merlin!”  He was gone before we could say his name.

Merlins rarely pause and almost never soar.  Their flight style is a constant powerful flapping and they’re always very fast.  Compared to merlins, peregrines seem laid back and almost lazy.  Peregrines conserve energy for the split second when they need it.  Merlins burn energy all the time except for the moments they perch.

My second merlin offered a good comparison to a peregrine.  At low tide I visited the South Lubec sand flats to watch shorebirds.  A peregrine and merlin showed up to eat them.

The peregrine hazed the sand bar until all the flocks were airborne in tight evasive circles.  Then he flew through the flocks until he separated a bird alone and grabbed his dinner on the wing. He stopped to eat it on an island in the bay.

The merlin came out of nowhere.  Using the grass and goldenrods as a blind he pumped fast, low, and straight along the water’s edge.  The shorebirds were so surprised that most had no time to fly.  The merlin caught a slow bird and just kept going.  In powered flight, he didn’t stop to eat.

 

(photo by William H. Majoros, Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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