Category Archives: Travel

Uncommon Starlings

Spotless starling (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3 March 2021

Why is this starling all black?

The European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) we love to hate in North America are just one of 123 species in the Starling family (Sturnidae). In Europe their English name is “common starling.” Here are seven of their uncommon looking relatives.

Spotless starling (Sturnis unicolor): The common starling’s nearest relative is a non-migratory resident of Spain, Portugal, northwest Africa, and nearby areas. Shown above, he is indeed spotless.

Rosy starling (Pastor roseus): Looks uncommon to us but is common in India in winter.

Rosy starling, Pakistan (photo by Imran Shah via Wikimedia Commons)

Violet-backed starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster): Native to sub-Saharan Africa, the male is beautiful amethyst, the female is boring brown.

Superb starling (Lamprotornis superbus): Lives in Africa. Definitely superb. Imagine seeing more than one!

Superb starlings, western Serengeti, 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Greater blue-eared starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus): A very common bird of open woodlands in the Sahel and the eastern half of Africa.

Greater blue-eared starling, Botswana Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Hildebrandt’s starling (Lamprotornis hildebrandti): Lives in Kenya and Tanzania. Oh my!

Hildebrandt’s starling, Tanzania (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mysterious starling (Aplonis mavornata): There is no photo of the mysterious starling because cameras had not been invented when he was found in Polynesia in 1825. Ornithologists went looking for him in 1975 but he was already extinct. Due to the mystery of his origin, there are probably two extinct species of mysterious starlings. Read more here.

Mysterious starling non-photo (screenshot from Birds of the World)

Our European starlings certainly look common compared to these.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Seeds Travel By Sea

Monkey-ladder vine (highlighted in red) and its heart-shaped seeds (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

5 February 2021

Many plants that grow near water disperse their seeds by riding the water wherever it goes. Fabulous among this group are tropical plants whose drift seeds cross the ocean.

The monkey-ladder vine or sea bean (Entada gigas), above, produces hard-covered heart-shaped seeds that contain an air pocket to keep them buoyant. Seeds from the Caribbean and Central America wash into the ocean and float on the Gulf Stream. Some make landfall 15 months later on the shores of Scotland.

Map of the Gulf Stream from NOAA Scijinks

This selection of drift seeds was found at the Outer Hebrides.

Drift seeds collected in Western Isles, Outer Hebrides, Scotland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They can also be found at Orkney as seen in this video from BBC Winterwatch.

The drift seeds traveled more than 4,000 miles to reach Orkney’s beaches and so did a lot of other things.

p.s. Click here to see a map of Scotland showing the Outer Hebrides and the Orkney Islands.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, tweet embedded from BBC Winterwatch)

Benefits of A Rare Bird

White-crowned sparrow (photo by Tim Lenz via Wikimedia Commons)

12 January 2021

White-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) are not rare in North America but are extremely rare in Britain. In 2008 a white-crowned sparrow showed up in the small town of Cley next the Sea, Norfolk and stayed for many weeks thanks to Richard and Sue Bending who put seed for it in the drive to their Dawn Cottage home, shown below.

Dawn Cottage, Cley Next The Sea, Norfolk (photo from Zoopla real estate site)

In the UK there’s a lovely tradition of birders (called twitchers) making a donation to a local charity when they come visit a rare bird. In 2008 the parish church St. Margaret’s at Cley next the Sea, built in 1320-1340, was in need of restoration funds so the donations were given to the church. The bird stayed for weeks, ultimately raising 6,000 pounds, more than $11,000 in 2008 dollars. At the time it was the most ever raised by a rare bird.

St. Margaret’s, Cley Next the Sea, Norfolk, 2008 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

St. Margaret’s honored the bird with a stained glass window.

The white-crowned sparrow of St. Margaret’s, Cley (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And British twitchers honored the bird with a nickname — “badger bunting” — for the badger-like stripes on its head.

Beyond the thrill of seeing a rare bird there can be tangible benefits.

p.s. A tip of the hat to @RyanFMandelbaum for his tweet that tells the story.

p.p.s. I saw the church from a distance in late June 2017 when I visited Cley & Salthouse Marshes on a birding tour with Oriole Birding. I had 12 Life Birds there; Best Bird was Eurasian spoonbill. It’s a great place for birds!

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Zoopla; click on the captions to see the originals)

Red-tailed Hawks Look Different In the West

Dark morph red-tailed hawk, San Mateo County, CA (photo by Robin Agarwal, via Flickr Creative Commons license)

4 January 2021

One of the surprises when traveling in North America is that our most common hawk in Pittsburgh, the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), looks very different out west.

In western Pennsylvania, red-tailed hawks are best identified by the belly band of stripes below their breasts and dark patagial marks on their underwings. Some have dark markings, some are pale. Adults are redder than immatures.

Red-tailed hawks in western PA: Adult (by Steve Gosser) and immature (by Donna Foyle)
Red-tailed hawk at the Allegheny Front, PA, 2016 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Adult red-tailed hawk at the Allegheny Front, PA, 2016 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Red-tailed hawk, Lawrence County, PA, 2013 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Though most western red-tailed hawks are similar to their eastern cousins they are generally darker, as shown below in Washington state. There’s also a dark morph that’s completely chocolate brown as in the photo at top from San Mateo County, California.

Adult red-tailed hawk in Kirkland WA, Immature red-tail in Stanwood, WA (photos by Mick Thompson via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Here are more examples.

Arizona: Underwings on this adult are darker and redder than back east.

Adult red-tailed hawk, Maricopa County, AZ (photo by Steve Valasek)

Utah: Dark underneath on an immature red-tail.

California: While many red-tails in California are merely darker, the dark morph is over the top.

Dark morph red-tailed hawk, San Diego County, CA (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren)
Adult dark morph red-tailed hawk, San Diego County, CA (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren)

Some day when we can travel again I’m looking forward to seeing a dark morph red-tailed hawk.

(photos by Robin Agarwal, Steve Gosser, Donna Foyle, Cris Hamilton, Mick Thompson, Steve Valasek, Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren; click on the captions to see the originals posted in Flickr with Creative Commons license)

African Hawk With a Red Tail

Augur buzzard starting to fly in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This is not a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) but it sure resembles one. The augur buzzard (Buteo augur) of Africa also has a lifestyle that resembles North America’s red-tailed hawk.

Take a 6-minute trip to Kenya and learn more about augur buzzards in this video from the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust. You’ll see some parallels with our most familiar hawk.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Quiz: Where Is The Largest Desert on Earth?

Rippled sand of Sharjah Desert, UAE (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Quiz! Where is the largest desert on Earth? What continent is it on?

By “largest” I mean square miles. By “desert” I mean …

A desert is a barren area of landscape where little precipitation occurs and, consequently, living conditions are hostile for plant and animal life. The lack of vegetation exposes the unprotected surface of the ground to the processes of denudation. About one-third of the land surface of the world is arid or semi-arid.

Wikipedia entry for Desert

Did you know that the majority of deserts are not composed of sand dunes?

To get you in the mood, here are photos of deserts around the world.

The road to Mar Musa, Syria (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Gobi Desert, Mongolia, in autumn (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Valle de la Muerte, Atacama Desert, Chile (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Arizona National Scenic Trail (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Leave a comment with your answer. I’ll post the answer later today (see below).

Click here for a map (By the way, this map includes the answer but it doesn’t look that way!)

ANSWER: Antarctica! In fact both poles are deserts. The Antarctica Polar Desert is 5.5. million square miles, the Arctic Polar Desert is 5.4 million sq mi and the Sahara is 3.5 million sq mi. Read more about the largest deserts at geology.com.

Snow surface at Dome C Station, Antarctica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Why is it a desert? Because the air is so dry. As the Dan Satterfield explains in Scientific Facts That Are Not True:

It cannot be too cold to snow some. It can be too cold to snow a lot. As air gets colder, it can hold less moisture. This is why the Antarctic is the greatest desert on Earth. It’s drier in many places than the Sahara! Climate change is expected to cause more snow in polar regions, not less. Now you know why. (warmer air means it can snow more)

— Wild Wild Science Blog: Scientific Facts That Are Not True

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Up to 55 mph Non-Stop For 11 Days

Bar-tailed godwit (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 October 2020

Yesterday the news broke that a bar-tailed godwit fitted with a satellite tracking tag had flown non-stop over the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to New Zealand in 11 days. During his 7,500 mile trip he reached speeds of up to 55 miles an hour. He’s an amazing bird from an amazing subspecies.

Bar-tailed godwits (Limosa lapponica) breed in Scandinavia, Siberia and Alaska and spend the winter at shores from Europe to Africa, from southern Asia to New Zealand. Most travel over or near land (see map) but the Alaskan subspecies, Limosa lapponica baueri, flies down the center of the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand. According to Wikipedia, this subspecies makes “the longest known non-stop flight of any bird and the longest journey of any animal without feeding.”

Late last year the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre in New Zealand satellite-tagged 20 bar-tailed godwits to find out where and when they go. Tracked by the Global Flyway Network, godwit 4BBRW left Alaska on 16 September and landed in New Zealand on 27 September.

Find out more and see his route at The Guardian link below.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; 4BBRW map embedded from The Guardian article, complete route from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. Next spring he’ll fatten up to return to Alaska on one of these red routes.

And he’ll look a lot fancier in breeding plumage.

Bar-tailed godwit in New Zealand in June, breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Emergency Rest Stop For Birds

Mount Desert Rock, 2006 (photo by Justin Russell via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

If this were a normal year(*), my husband and I would be at Acadia National Park right now and I’d go on a whale watch tour in the Gulf of Maine to see shearwaters, storm-petrels and (rarely) a south polar skua. Overhead, far from shore, I’d also see migrating songbirds crossing the water from Nova Scotia to Acadia, still traveling during the day in order to make landfall.

Their journey across the Gulf of Maine — about 100 miles — mimics their 600-mile journey over the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana to the Yucatan which takes 15-25 hours of non-stop flying. Even during the shorter Gulf of Maine journey some have to make an emergency rest stop on Mount Desert Rock, an inhospitable way station for songbirds, shown above.

Gulf of Maine (left) and Gulf of Mexico (right) — not to scale — non-stop journeys for migrating songbirds (maps from Wikimedia Commons)

This week millions of songbirds are crossing both the Gulf of Maine and the Gulf of Mexico.

Read about what they find if they stop on Mount Desert Rock in this 2013 article No Food, No Water.

p.s. (*) Alas, it’s not a normal year. We wish we could go to Maine but COVID-19 precautions canceled any idea of flying and even if we drove to Maine we’d have to quarantine in the hotel for 14 days, using up our entire vacation and prohibiting any whale watch tour. Sigh.

A Face That’s Hard To Love

Marabou stork closeup (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus) can’t help it, he’s ugly. His face is hard to love.

When he’s amorous, or hot, or in a bad mood he inflates his fleshy throat sac which intimidates the other storks. It’s ugly, too.

Maribou stork with throat sac inflated (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Find out more about him in this vintage article …

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)