There’s a black bird with red wings in South Africa that resembles North America’s red-winged blackbird except for his outrageously long tail.
The long-tailed widowbird (Euplectes progne) is not related to red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). The widowbird is a weaver (Ploceidae), red-wings are New World blackbirds (Icteridae), yet male and female widowbirds have very similar coloring to male and female red-wings. The similarity ends when you see his tail.
His tail is an important part of his courtship flight display.
When Europeans explored the Pacific they sometimes named islands for the day they found them. Thus Easter Island (Rapa Nui) was named by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen who encountered it on Easter Day 5 April 1722 and Christmas Island (Kiritimati) was given its English name by Captain James Cook on Christmas Eve 1777.
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.
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!
Greater blue-eared starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus): A very common bird of open woodlands in the Sahel and the eastern half of Africa.
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.
Our European starlings certainly look common compared to these.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)
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.
This selection of drift seeds was found at the Outer Hebrides.
They can also be found at Orkney as seen in this video from BBC Winterwatch.
Where the land meets the sea, a whole host of treasures are waiting to be discovered – brought here from across the globe by swirling ocean currents. Join @peediepuss as he shares his discoveries from Orkney’s beaches. ??#Winterwatch ?? pic.twitter.com/C06tap0Zr3
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 honored the bird with a stained glass window.
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.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)
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.
Here are more examples.
Arizona: Underwings on this adult are darker and redder than back east.
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.
Some day when we can travel again I’m looking forward to seeing a dark morph red-tailed hawk.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.”
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.
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.