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