Category Archives: Beyond Bounds

One Note

Varied thrush (photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)
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:

“Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius meruloides)” from xeno-canto by Richard E. Webster. Genre: Turdidae.

This song is unique in North America and easy to identify by ear.

Just one note.

(photo by Eleanor Briccetti via Wikimedia Commons)

Gorgeous Galahs

Galahs in southern Australia. Click the image to see the video (screenshot from Vimeo by the green eye)
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. 

Primary Colors

Scarlet ibis, little blue heron, Venezuela (photo by barloventomagico via Flicker)
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)

Not A Bluebird

The bluest bird. Only a subspecies? (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
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)

 

 

Unicorns At Sea

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)

Caracara, Capybara

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.

Tanagers Bathing

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.

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)

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.