At Home…Still

Carolina wren with dandelion w sig
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) in my yard

Have you seen the articles about how the pandemic stay-at-home orders have had unexpected benefits for some people? I was just reading about families who have begun eating dinners together and spending more time playing games at home, enjoying each other’s company.  Freed from the need to commute to work or school, many people have more time to slow their lives down.

I’m retired and not part of a household, but there are parallel changes happening in my own life. Over the past six months or so, I’d started to feel that I had too many obligations; I wanted to figure out how to slow my life down without missing out on fun events with friends.  I was trying to get better at saying “no” to new obligations. Suddenly the Coronavirus poked its head up and fixed that problem for me. My life came to a screeching halt. Everything was cancelled. Every day was scary and confusing.

But now that I’ve adapted (somewhat) to this new pandemic-restricted life, I’m rediscovering the pleasures of staying at home. The other day someone asked me how I was doing, and I said, “You know…I’m still at home.” As the words came out of my mouth, I thought of another meaning of “still” — being quiet, peaceful, serene, not moving. And I realized that I’m really enjoying this time when my calendar has nothing on it. Most days there’s no place I have to be at any given time. Such freedom! That was disorienting at first, but I’m getting used to it now. So yes, I’m still at home, and I like it.

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Carolina Wren hunting March flies in my yard

In no way am I suggesting that the pandemic is a good thing, but I wonder if this period of forced slowing down might have some long-term benefits to our lives. Will we take any positive life lessons from our experience, or will we go back to our normal busy-busy ways after this is over? Will I be better at saying “no”? Will we remember what it’s been like to have more time to just sit with a cup of coffee and gaze out the window, or sit on the garden swing and watch a wren plucking March flies from the grass?

Speaking of sitting with a cup of coffee…the other morning I was on the sofa with my morning java, when this young Cooper’s hawk dropped dramatically out of the sky to land on a mole in the front yard. He was less than 20 feet away from me, separated only by two panes of glass.

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Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) standing on his prey

Realizing time was of the essence, I moved as quickly as I could toward my camera, trying not to spook him. I had an advantage because raptors seem less likely to spook easily when they’re young, and especially when they’re attempting to subdue their next meal. So while he stood there squeezing that mole to death, I managed to grab the camera and get a few shots off before my cat Sam ran at the window and caused the hawk to fly off, mole dangling below him. This was one of only a few times in my life when I’ve been able to take a bird photo from my sofa. It doesn’t get any easier than that.

Cooper's hawk with prey v3
I think he knows I’m watching, but he doesn’t feel threatened enough to fly

Last summer was full of meetings, field trips, and conferences for dragonflies, moths, and native plants — I was constantly going somewhere. This summer isn’t likely to have any of those events, so I can easily imagine myself redirecting my attention to some intense nesting behaviors at home. My native garden project has been a wonderful anchor for me, leading me to spend lots of time watching the insects that come to live out their lives here. I foresee even more time spent in my own garden this year, documenting and learning about the wildlife I share this property with.

Speaking about documenting insects, don’t forget to click the big beetle icon on the sidebar to check in on Kim’s Big Bug Year. I’ve found some interesting things so far, including this beautiful tiger beetle, a subspecies of the Festive Tiger Beetle called the LeConte’s Tiger Beetle.

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LeConte’s Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris ssp. lecontei)

Having said all that about enjoying my time at home and wanting to slow down, I do miss my friends quite a lot. I don’t want to turn inward so much that I don’t see my friends at all. But maybe I’ll start inviting them to visit me and sit in my garden, one person at a time (six feet away from each other, of course). I always get more satisfaction from interacting with people one-on-one than in groups anyway, so maybe this can work out for me after all.

Do you think you’ll make any permanent changes in your behavior as a result of the pandemic? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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I was lucky to find this secretive Sora yesterday while on a rare birding walk with a friend, six feet apart.

Focus on Home Birds

Since I moved to this house three years ago, I haven’t spent much time watching birds in my backyard. There’s a large noisy flock of non-native House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) that dominate the neighborhood, and those aggressive bullies have discouraged me from keeping my feeders filled most of the time, and they dissuade many other birds from staying too long as well.

So instead of birding the yard, I’ve focused more on trying to establish my garden, and on documenting the insects that come to my native plants. Here’s my main native bed, just cleaned up and showing early signs of the explosive growth to come — it contains monarda, asters, goldenrods, various milkweeds, boneset, blue lobelia, and many more native lovelies.

Native bed early in season 2020

But on this beautiful afternoon, knowing that my favorite walking trails would be too crowded for safety, I sat at my patio table (in the shade of my new umbrella!) and renewed my acquaintance with some fine feathered friends.

Patio umbrella 4-28-20
Those gallon jugs are mini greenhouses growing native seedlings for my garden.

This Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) has been in the yard for a few days now, and I hear his familiar trilling song often. Even when he’s not singing, his diminutive size compared to other sparrows allows me to identify him from inside the house without binoculars. Beginning birders often struggle with identifying the various sparrows, calling them LBJs — little brown jobs. I spent much more time learning the colorful “easy” warblers than the sparrows, but now I’ve got a good handle on most sparrows.

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Chipping Sparrow on empty cylinder feeder — oops!
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Chipping Sparrow giving me the evil eye because the feeders are empty

This morning I was thrilled to see a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) inspecting my empty feeders for a few moments. I quickly filled them and left for a walk in the park. When I came back home, I could hear his beautiful soft song from the redbud trees, and sure enough, there he was.

White-throated sparrow in redbud tree
White-throated Sparow in Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

As I’m writing this, a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) has just flown over my head, calling out his squeaky “wicka-wicka-wicka” before landing in the big cedar tree in the front yard. I tried for a photo but missed. The flicker is a beautiful woodpecker that often forages for ants on the ground — here’s a pic I took on another day.

Northern Flicker on grass - blog
Northern Flicker

American Robins (Turdus migratorius) are prowling the lawn areas, snatching insects and listening for the sounds of worms underground. They’re so much fun to watch as they cock their heads and listen. The one I’m watching now is having great success, hopping around and plucking one insect (or maybe spider) after another from the grass.

Robin with head cocked listening - blog 2Robin with head cocked listening - blog

I was pleased to get a visit from this Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), a blackbird that often gets overlooked by birders in search of “prettier” birds. But I challenge you to convince me that this bird isn’t gorgeous with his sleek black and iridescent blue feathers, and those yellow eyes!

Common grackle with dandelions in my yard - blog

Notice how nice he looks among the dandelions too. Those dandelions are symbolic of my yard’s chemical-free status. As I look down my street, I see mostly manicured lawns with very few dandelions. My neighbors probably think I’m a lazy homeowner, but it’s the exact opposite. I intentionally allow those dandelions (and clover and other early flowering weeds) to grow because they help the early pollinators survive until more flowers are available to them. And I also think a lawn covered in dandelions is just as lovely as a lawn full of cultivated flowers like daffodils.

I don’t see birds foraging for insects on the lawns of my neighbors either, because they keep their lawns even more sterile than their homes, killing everything except their non-native grass with pesticides and herbicides. I know it’s what our culture has come to accept as a sign of prosperity, but those attitudes really need to change if we want to preserve the biodiversity of this planet in a meaningful way. Sometimes I feel defensive about my dandelions because I know people are judging me harshly for their presence. But I’m also judging them for the absence of dandelions and insects on their own lawns. It’s funny in a sad way, I guess. We humans are quite complicated animals, aren’t we?

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By the way, if you want to hear the songs of any of the birds in this post, go to the Cornell Lab and type the bird name into the search bar. I hope you get to hear some birds singing in your yard this spring!

Lifting Each Other Up

Magnolia Warbler - Magee Marsh 5-21-18 blog
Magnolia Warbler

How are you all doing? I hope you’re finding ways to adapt to this new normal. It’s really important now that we take care of ourselves and each other, both physically and mentally.  We don’t know how long we’re going to be in this situation where we have to keep our distance from each other — it could be weeks, or it could be months. And that’s one of the hardest things, isn’t it? The not knowing.

I’ve noticed some cracks showing among my friends in their posts and comments to each other. Perfectly lovely people are snapping at each other. The other day I sent a message to a friend asking how he was holding up, because I hadn’t seen him on social media as much as usual. His terse reply of just two words hurt my feelings for a while, until I reminded myself not to take it personally and that he’s just dealing with stress in his own way. In this time when communication is so important, everyone is touchy and it’s difficult to know what to say or not say to someone. So it’s evident that the stress is starting to wear on all of us. I find myself increasingly wanting to reach through the computer or the phone and give someone a tight hug, to quell their fears as well as my own. I hate being alone all the time! I would give anything to be able to meet a friend for coffee, or to host another day of board games or cards.

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Cape May Warbler – I see you!

I’m so glad that it’s spring, and soon we’ll have the healthy distraction of warblers migrating through and dragonflies emerging. It won’t be the same as enjoying those things with friends, but it will be a lifesaver. Birders here in northwest Ohio will be denied their usual warbler migration hotspot, as the famed Magee Marsh is closed and I believe it’s likely to remain closed through May.

In the coming weeks I’ll have more nature photos to show you, but today I wanted to share links to some things humans have done to lift my spirits lately. Human beings are so much more resilient than we think we are, and I’ve been incredibly thankful for those people who have used their creativity and talent to help the rest of us get through this. Here are a few of them. I hope something here makes you smile or at least gives you some comfort. I find these wonderful reminders that, while I might be physically alone, I’m not alone in my experience. Billions of people are enduring this with me. Keeping that in mind helps me get through each day. We’re all in this together, and we’ll come through it together.

This first one is my absolute favorite. Italians have been playing music out their windows each evening as a way of maintaining social connections during their quarantine. It’s beautiful.

Virtual orchestra performing a cover of Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now.”

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain performing “Higher and Higher”

My Big Bug Year Begins…Soon

By now everyone has heard of the tradition in birding called a “Big Year,” in which you see how many species of birds you can find in a calendar year. There have been books written and movies made about this practice, and the competition can be fierce in some circles. This afternoon a friend told me she’s going to do a big birding year in 2020, and I got an idea: I’m going to do a Big Bug Year!

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Great spreadwings ovipositing (inserting eggs into the branch)

I’ll include all arthropods, so that means spiders will be fair game as well as any type of insect (including my favorites — odonata!). This is purely a personal project; I’m not competing with anyone because that’s what sucked the joy out of birding for me. I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on myself.  I’ll probably actively search out places to find new species, but I still want to enjoy each encounter, and hopefully take the time to learn more about each new critter I come across. This Big Bug Year will cover the calendar year 2020, so it has officially begun even though I haven’t found any insects so far.  I started the year off sick and even if I hadn’t been bedridden, it’s still winter in Ohio, after all. I might get a jump start if I head down to Texas in March as I’m hoping to, but otherwise I wouldn’t expect to make much headway up here in Ohio until probably April.

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A cute little jumping spider!

I’m excited about this! As I started thinking about it, I checked my observations from iNaturalist and was stunned to discover that I’d photographed and identified 293 species of arthropods in 2019.  (All but two of those were in Ohio.)  And I’ve got around 100 photos that haven’t been positively identified yet, so that number might increase. And I haven’t checked, but I’m sure a large percentage of my observations in 2019 were moths I saw at Mothapalooza, and since there isn’t a Mothapalooza in 2020, I would expect my species count to be lower this year. But again, not competing, so the numbers are just interesting, that’s all.

I think that my interest in studying insects marks an important step forward in my evolution as a naturalist because insects are at a lower trophic level in the food web, and therefore more foundational to the ecosystem. Learning about insects has given me a deeper understanding of how all of life truly is interconnected.  (And, by the way, a few years ago I’d never heard the term “trophic level,” so that’s progress too.) Put simply, trophic levels are a way of looking at the food web by describing who eats whom in the process of passing the sun’s energy through various life forms.

Trophic pyramid from Ck12 dot org - creative commons license
(c) CK-12 Foundation; Licensed under Creative Commons

As you can see in this graphic, the first trophic level is composed of plants and algae. The next level contains insects and other herbivores, i.e., those who eat the plants in the first level. And so it goes up the pyramid. The higher levels consume those in the lower levels. When you see it illustrated like this, it becomes very clear that everyone needs to eat plants, whether directly or indirectly.

When I first started learning about native plants through my membership in Wild Ones, I found that one of the keys to their importance is that they are hosts to many more species of insects than non-native plants are. A “host plant” is one that a specific insect species can use to raise its young. Insects have complex chemical relationships with plants, and there are some plants that just cannot serve as food for certain insects or groups of insects.

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Last instar of monarch caterpillar, after eating lots of milkweed
Bringing Nature Home cover image Tallamy
Doug Tallamy’s book explains all the basics of insect-plant relationships

The most widely-known example of this is the monarch butterfly. The monarch absolutely must lay its eggs on milkweed plants, because when the tiny caterpillars emerge from the eggs, they can only eat milkweed. That’s it. If there’s no milkweed, then the monarch butterfly will quickly go extinct. Some people suggest that the caterpillars would evolve to be able to eat something else, but research has shown that type of evolution to take a very long time. There’s simply not enough time for a species to evolve in that way before it dies out. And so it is with many insects, including the pollinators that are crucial to the human food supply.  Therefore we need to increase the proportion of native plants throughout the world in order to increase the chances that we can save a diverse enough range of insect species that our own survival won’t eventually be threatened.

Starting to get the idea now? I’ve been amazed to discover some of this stuff, and rather incredulous that it wasn’t taught to me in school. This basic understanding of how ecosystems work should be presented to all of us in high school, if not sooner.

So, let’s get back on track. (Bear with me…I’m trying to wrap this up!) Why do we care how many species of insects can live off of any particular plant? Don’t we hate all insects and kill every one we find? Well, it’s true, many people do live that way, unfortunately. But I’m hoping to get people to see insects differently, and learn to tolerate them rather than killing them indiscriminately. (Before all the vegetable gardeners write me angry emails, I’m not suggesting you allow the insects to devour all of your crops. But maybe, just maybe, you can allow them to have some of them?)

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Song Sparrow with a beak full of protein for nestlings

Kim's Big Bug Year logo 2020.jpgI’ll end with one more mind-blowing fact that you may not have heard: Birds have to feed their babies with insect protein. Lots of it. You may feel good about helping birds when you hang seed feeders in your yard. But that only feeds birds after they’re fledged from the nest. Even as adults, birds still get the majority of their nutrition from insects rather than seeds, but baby birds need insects.  And ONE brood of baby birds can eat 6,000-9,000 caterpillars before they leave the nest. Here’s an article from the National Audubon Society that explains more about the research on that.

So if you’re a bird-lover, it makes sense that you will want to start growing native plants to support the entire life cycle of the birds that could potentially nest in your yard if they know there’s going to be a good enough supply of caterpillars there. It’s sure worth trying, isn’t it?

I hope you’ll check back in here occasionally to read about progress with my Big Bug Year. I’ll bet we all learn something from it.

(In the meantime, if you want to learn more about using native plants in your yard, hop over to the “Learn” page on my chapter’s Wild Ones website.)

Dork Alert – Galápagos, Part 4

Maybe I should have titled this, “Birder True Confessions,” because I’m going to admit to some embarrassing things that happened on this trip. The first is that I sometimes get excited about birds that other people don’t. I wrote about one such occasion from my trip to Texas last winter, when my friend Rick was trying to show me a ringed kingfisher and I was more excited about a bunch of pelicans.

When I learned that I would have a chance to see flamingos in the Galápagos, I was really stoked. I bet most of my Ohio birder friends have seen flamingos already, but I hadn’t. This is because I’ve never been to Florida, believe it or not. Well, okay, I went to Ft. Lauderdale on spring break during college, but birds weren’t on my radar back then. And I’ve not been back to the Sunshine State since then, mostly because I’m afraid of birding where there are alligators. I know it’s an irrational fear, but what can I say? I imagine myself being distracted looking up at birds, and walking right into an alligator lurking in the vegetation along a trail. Don’t laugh, it could happen. But I hope to overcome that fear at some point and go birding down south.

So anyway, when the day finally came that we would have a chance to see flamingos, I was ready. I wore my flamingo t-shirt, the one I rarely wear at home because it seems so tacky. I don’t even know why I bought this shirt in the first place because it seems like something you’d get in a souvenir shop at the beach. But I had it, and I packed it for this trip, just for this day.  And I’m so glad I did, because that’s the reason I can show you this picture:

Kim's lifer flamingos in the Galapagos - Dork Alert

It seems I have no shame, sigh. But boy, oh boy, was I happy to see those statuesque pink birds! I was soaked in sweat and physically quite uncomfortable, but you can’t tell that from this photo.

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It would have been awesome to find a huge flock of these elegant-yet-comical birds, but I was still thrilled about finding eight of them in a small pond. It was tempting to play with the color saturation when I edited these photos, so I made this collage with the original photo in the middle, bookended between lower-saturation and higher-saturation versions. I like it.

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Marine iguanas were plentiful along the rocky shore, and swimming with the snorkelers

Another funny story involved my first attempt at snorkeling. If you’ll recall from my pre-trip post, I was so excited about it — I was going to swim with sea lions and iguanas, right? Well, as it turned out…not so much.  I went through the cumbersome and chaotic every-woman-for-herself process of getting fitted for all the snorkel gear on the first day we were on the ship: fins, wetsuit, and mask. On the second day, we were given our first opportunity to go snorkeling. We loaded all the gear into zodiacs and were dropped off on a beautiful red-sand beach. I asked the guide if he would be able to help me get started since it was going to be my first time. He said, “Of course!”

Snorkelers off Rabida island
My fellow travelers went snorkeling without me! (Note the pelican on the rocks.)

Well, he may have had every intention of helping me, but what actually happened was that people spread out all across the beach and the guides weren’t really anywhere near me when I went in the water. I managed to get my flippers on, and then put my mask on, and then turn myself over and put my face in the water. But within two seconds a wave hit me and my mask filled with water and I was up again. And I found out just then that I probably should have realized that I needed to make sure my mask was a tight fit on my face — which it clearly wasn’t.

I stood in the shallow water contemplating my next move: would I try to get the attention of one of the guides, or would I try again on my own? Just then I noticed an American oystercatcher running along the beach, and I knew what I was going to do. I was going to throw off those stupid flippers and take photos of this awesome bird! I had only seen my first oystercatcher the day before — life bird! — so I was still pretty geeked at seeing another one, especially at such close range.

American Oystercatcher with sea urchin for blog
American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) & pencil sea urchin (Eucidaris thouarsii, perhaps)

This one was first racing the waves in and out of a small cave, but it eventually came out and walked up on the rocks, where it found a dried-up sea urchin to investigate. I watched it poking into the sea urchin, apparently finding some tasty morsels still tucked inside.

Check out this video of him:

 

Kim taking pics of oystercatcher on beach
One of the guides was taking pics of me as I was shooting the oystercatcher!

So even though my attempt at snorkeling was an epic fail, all was not lost because I got to spend some quality time with a very special bird!

I think this may be my last post in the Galápagos series, at least for a while. Spring has sprung in Ohio, and I’ll be busy exploring the natural world closer to home for a few months. It’s finally dragonfly season! The first migratory green darners showed up here in Toledo a few days ago, and other non-migratory species will be crawling out of various bodies of water to emerge as winged insects in the coming weeks.  I can’t wait!

Galapagos sea lion sleeping on rocks
Yep, it’s time to take a break from talking about the Galápagos!

 

Penguins and More – Galápagos, Part 3

On the morning of March 12, the ship anchored off the coast of Isabela Island near Elizabeth Bay. We piled into the zodiacs in groups of about 15 people, and headed off to explore the beautiful and peaceful mangrove lagoon.

Mangrove lagoon scenery - blue sky and water

Almost as soon as we entered the cove, we found a lone Galápagos penguin resting on a rock. He lay there calmly as our boat idled 20 feet away, allowing us to take some nice photos before moving on into the lagoon. These are the only penguins in the northern hemisphere, and are endemic to the Galápagos. The Galapágos Conservation Trust says this about their current conservation status: “In 1982, there was a particularly strong El Niño event that caused 77% of the population to die of starvation and the population has been recovering ever since. The current population is estimated to be just 2,000 birds.”

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Galápagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus)

We soon saw a sea turtle napping in the shade, using the mangrove branches to keep himself afloat.

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Another one popped up to say hello.

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I absolutely love turtle heads, don’t you? They look like toothless old men, but in a cute way.

In this lagoon we also got our first and only fleeting looks at golden rays. Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos of them before they were gone. I was also excited to see quite a few dragonflies zipping around above us. I’d not held out much hope of finding any dragonflies on this trip, so it was a big thrill. Dragonflies need fresh or brackish water, and I knew that most of our trip would be spent on salt water. But I believe the lagoon is brackish water, so that’s why there were dragonflies there. I was trying so hard to get a photo of one of them, and the boat driver tried to get me close to one, but I just couldn’t get the photo as the zodiac bobbed on the water. Talk about frustration! But all wasn’t lost in the ode department, because I managed to get a photo of one dragonfly on North Seymour island later in the week.

Dragonfly from Galapagos
Striped Saddlebags (Tramea calverti) photographed on North Seymour island

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Small groups of penguins entertained us as they swam around us. We found two sea lions tucked up in the mangrove trees enjoying naps in the shade. I was a little bit irritated that our guide nudged the boat into their little sheltered hideaway to allow people to take pictures of them. Most times the guides were very good about keeping a decent distance from the wildlife, but this time I felt they went too far in invading the space of the sea lions, so I was glad when we finally backed out of the little inlet and moved on. I didn’t take any pictures of them because I felt bad that we were there.

This striated heron was lurking in the shelter of the mangroves too. I’ll have more to say about this species in a future post.

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Striated heron (Butorides striata)

As we began our return trip out of the lagoon, a great blue heron flew in and landed in a mangrove tree, and I had that weird feeling that I often get when birding in a far-off location and seeing a bird that I see in Ohio. It’s like seeing a friend from home and saying, “Hey, I know you!”

There was one more treat to discover before we went back to the ship, and boy, was it great! This flightless cormorant was sunning itself on a rock as we emerged from the lagoon, and it made for such a gorgeous photo with the backdrop of the brilliant turquoise water.

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Flightless cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi)

The flightless cormorant is another endemic species in the Galápagos, so this was high on my bucket list of species I wanted to see. We only saw a few of them on the entire trip, and this was the closest we got to one. This photo is perfect for highlighting his stunted wings, which are the obvious reason that he’s flightless. He doesn’t even use those wings to propel himself through the water when fishing, instead relying on his powerful feet for propulsion. Because his wings don’t produce much oil, he can’t waterproof his feathers and has to spread the wings to dry in the sun after he’s done diving.

Okay, that’s three posts on the Galápagos trip, and I haven’t even mentioned Darwin’s finches yet. Stay tuned!

Pirates of the Sky – Galápagos, Part 2

In my first post about the Galápagos trip, I showed you photos of the beloved and iconic blue-footed boobies. Most of those images were made on North Seymour, a small island that’s host to large colonies of the boobies as well as frigatebirds. So let’s continue with the wonders of North Seymour. As our zodiac left the ship and approached this restricted-access island, I was enthralled by the sight of a sky filled with enormous birds soaring over us.

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Magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) are aptly named, because they are simply spectacular. Most days there were small groups of them soaring above the ship, giving us dramatic close views. With a wingspan of up to 8 feet, this giant seabird is often called a pirate of the sky because of its habit of stealing food from other birds. You see, the frigatebird doesn’t have waterproof feathers like most other seabirds, making it unable to dive into the sea for its food. It can grab fish from the surface with its hooked bill, but more often it seems to prefer taking food from boobies and other seabirds.

Great Frigatebirds attacking booby and food falling below
A good day for the frigatebirds. The booby, not so much.

The first time I witnessed this thieving behavior was on Kaua’i, where I photographed two great frigatebirds (Fregata minor) forcing a red-footed booby (Sula sula) to drop its food. In this photo you can see the food is falling as the booby squawks its displeasure. After the food is released by the booby, the frigatebird swoops below to grab it before it hits the water. It’s all very dramatic and fun to watch.

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Pick me, pick me!!

On North Seymour we were treated to close encounters with lots of nesting frigatebirds, and got to see their courtship behavior. While they don’t have a cute dance ritual like the boobies do, the male frigatebird has his own unique method of attracting a mate. He inflates his gular sac, a red pouch on his throat, which serves as the signal to all the ladies that he is an eligible bachelor. The island was dotted with males displaying their enormous scarlet gular sacs, eyes looking skyward, each one patiently waiting for a female to choose him.

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Male frigatebird soaring over us
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Female magnificent frigatebird, with her pretty blue eye ring

Once the female selects her mate, the two commence nest building. Usually the female stays on the nest to protect it from stick thieves, while the male goes out and gathers more sticks.

Both the magnificent and great frigatebirds live and breed in the Galápagos. Here’s a pair of great frigatebirds on a nest. Compare the female in this picture with the female in the photo above; the magnificent has a blue eye ring while the great has a red eye ring.

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Great frigatebirds on nest (Fregata magnificens); note the red eye ring on the female

North Seymour island was perhaps one of my favorite places of this entire trip. It was a wild and remote place, teeming with a great variety of animals. And as much as I loved the spectacle of the blue-footed boobies and the frigatebirds, there was another creature on this island that unexpectedly stole my heart.

On other islands earlier in the week, I’d seen lots of tiny lava lizards and medium-sized marine iguanas, but nothing had prepared me for the stunning beauty of the lizards on this island. Meet Conolophus subcristatus, the Galapagos land iguana.

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These guys were just everywhere, often right beside the trail resting in the shade as dozens of awed humans walked past them.  Our naturalist guide was counting them, trying to beat her personal high count of about 70 on a one-hour walk. I think we counted almost 50 on this day, and I’m sure we missed plenty of them as we were distracted by boobies and frigatebirds overhead or sea lions on the rocky shores.

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Land iguana shedding his old skin, exposing bright new colors

Even today, more than a week after the trip, I’m blown away when I look at these lizards. You should have seen them in all their majesty, lumbering across the hot sand and rocks, adorned in the colors of the sun! They make me wish I were an artist so I could draw or paint them.

Land iguana paintingLuckily for me, I was able to purchase an original painting from a local artist to commemorate the feelings I had as I watched these equatorial dragons roaming their kingdom. I can’t wait to get this painting framed so it can hang in my home. I’ve joked with friends that I’m the only person they know with giant photos of dragonflies and other insects on their living room walls…just wait until they see this hanging over the sofa!

 

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Land iguana skeleton

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Land iguana by ship staff (1)
Photo by staff of the Celebrity Xpedition

This last image isn’t mine; it was taken by one of the ship’s naturalists, and given to us at the end of the cruise, along with hundreds of other photos from the week’s adventures. I like to think that if I’d been allowed to spend more time with these iguanas, I could have come up with an image like this on my own. Maybe one day I’ll get another chance.

These first two posts have barely made a dent in this trip report, so next time I’ll show you even more natural wonders of the Galápagos!

And…We’re Back – Galápagos, Part 1

Well, that went by quickly, didn’t it? The anticipation of the Galápagos trip lasted for months, and then it was all over in a flash.  I’m editing hundreds of photos and struggling with how to write about it. There were highs and lows, as there are with any travel experience. The highs revolved around the wildlife, so that’s the part I’m going to write about the most. The less enjoyable parts were things like travel delays, regimented daily schedules on the ship, and a little bit of altitude sickness in Quito.

Cruise map for Celebrity Xpedition Galapagos Inner Loop
The route we took on the cruise around the Galápagos

I’m not going to recap the trip day-by-day, but rather just share my photos and thoughts about the animals. So let’s get started with, what else, blue-footed boobies!

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Blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii)

I’d say that, along with the giant tortoises, the blue-footed boobies are one of the most sought-after species by visitors to the islands. Even though they’re found in other parts of the world, they’ve become iconic symbols of the Galápagos.  My first close encounter with these striking and comical birds was when our zodiac boat floated past this one standing on a rocky outcrop at Rabida island. As you can see, the bird showed virtually no reaction to the appearance of 15 humans a few yards away.

That’s one of the most amazing things about wildlife experiences in the Galápagos  — the animals don’t flee when we approach, as they do in other parts of the world.  Most of these islands are so remote and devoid of people that the animals don’t understand that humans are a source of danger. It’s actually heartbreaking to realize that the entire animal kingdom has to fear us; I felt the gift of this precious experience deep in my heart every time I was able to have a close encounter like this. I admit that it was a bit disconcerting to feel joy and sadness at the same time.

Here’s a video of the blue-footed booby courtship dance, one of the highlights of the trip. I giggled at the beginning because it seemed that the female (on the right) leaned over and commanded the male to dance for her. And, as you see, he obliged her. Notice the difference in pupil size between the sexes; the male’s pupil is smaller than the female’s. She’s also larger-bodied than he is, as is common with many birds.

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Note the smaller pupil size in the male, standing behind the female

A few minutes later I was supremely lucky to come upon another pair of boobies standing just a few feet from the edge of the trail, and was able to use my cell phone to record them mating!

When the male walked toward me after the completion of his task, it seemed he was seeking accolades for his performance, and that made me smile. What a proud boy he was! (Yes, a harmless bit of anthropomorphizing, I know.)

The male booby makes a whistling sound, while the female’s call is more of a honking sound. Here’s a short clip showing a male whistling:

The population of blue-footed boobies in the Galápagos has suffered in recent years due to a decline in sardines after the 1997 El Niño. You can read more about their struggle for survival here.

We also saw two other species of boobies on this trip, the red-footed and the Nazca booby.

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Nazca booby (Sula granti)
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Red-footed booby (Sula sula)

The red-footed booby is the only one to have several color morphs, and it’s also the one most likely to be found nesting in trees rather than on the rocks (at least I think that’s what our guide said). I was enchanted by the pink and blue coloration on the beak of this cartoonish bird and would have loved to have seen one up close instead of 75 feet above me on a cliff, as this one was.

Blue-footed booby head crop w sigI want to point out that most of my photos on this trip were taken from zodiacs that were bobbing up and down on the ocean waves, so the sharpness of the images is much less than I would have liked. But even so, I hope you enjoy seeing them.

I’ve got much more to show you in upcoming posts…the only penguin in the northern hemisphere, the only nocturnal gull in the world, and the most beautiful lizards you’ve ever seen!

 

 

Monday Blues are Fake News

I don’t keep my bird feeders out in the summer, but I do feed in the winter. With all the recent snowstorms, I’ve been putting extra nuts and seeds out in the yard to help the birds survive the extreme weather. And I’ve been rewarded with quite a treat: the blue jays have been here in rowdy gangs, giving me lots of opportunities to observe them.

Blue jays and starlings on feeders in snow Jan 2019
Blue jays grudgingly sharing the feeders with starlings and a red-bellied woodpecker

These jays are one of our most common resident species, and I think because of that, we don’t often take much notice of their comings and goings.  But I find it’s sometimes rewarding to make a concerted effort to pay more attention to a common species than the more “exotic” transient birds.

I’ve taken a few pictures of my recent visitors, but am also sharing some of my archival photos that I just rediscovered. This one made me stop and say, “Hey, look at that beautiful gray breast!”

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I realized that, if asked to describe a blue jay without a photo, I would probably not have noted any gray on the breast at all. But there it is, plain as day. This guy is quite the looker, isn’t he? (Or she, it’s not easy to discern gender in this species as far as I know.)

Blue Jay portrait w sig Jan 2019

Something else that strikes me about these jays is that, despite being larger than most of the other feeder birds and having that loud, insistent call, they seem to be more skittish than the other birds. They’ll sit up in a tree boldly making a racket, but when they drop down to the feeders, they usually only spend a few seconds there before zipping away again, as if I’m going to run out and grab them or something. I guess it could be that they know their larger size makes them easier prey for the Cooper’s hawks who prowl through here on a regular basis.

Blue Jay taking peanuts from wreath w sig.jpgOne way I’ve found to entice them to stay for a bit longer is to put whole peanuts in one of these ring feeders so that they have to tug on it to get it out.

If you’ve ever used a birding app or field guide, you’ve probably noticed that bird vocalizations are described in two distinct categories: songs and calls. Songs are most often associated with breeding behavior like attracting a mate or protecting a territory, whereas calls are much more varied in purpose. There are contact calls, used to keep in touch with mates or juveniles while foraging, calls to communicate with other birds in a flock during migration, or alarm calls of varying urgency. As I was writing this I realized that blue jays don’t have much of a typical song. Their raucous calls are impossible not to notice, but their song is a very soft series of whistling and clicking sounds that’s easy to overlook. You can hear an example of their song on Cornell’s All About Birds site, here. Just scroll to the bottom past all of the calls to the “whisper song.”

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Recently fledged juvenile being fed by a parent

The more I think about this bird, the more interesting it becomes. Such a study in contrasts — big, noisy, and aggressive one moment, then skittish and seemingly shy the next.

Blue Jay portrait on hook w sigEven though blue jays are year-round residents here, we still see large flocks of them moving along the Lake Erie shore each spring. Researchers still have many questions about why some blue jays migrate and others don’t. I’ll never forget the first time I looked up and saw a silent river of blue jays streaming along the shore just east of Toledo. There were hundreds of them in a long, narrow avian ribbon, flowing from west to east, not making a sound. Such a fascinating contrast to the noisy birds that visit my yard!

Blue Jay feather - one inch long w sigYou might be wondering about my title, “Monday Blues are Fake News.” Well, let me explain that. The blue jay’s scientific name is Cyanocitta cristata, referring to the blue color (cyanos) and their crested head (cristata). But did you know that blue jays aren’t really blue? Like other “blue” birds, their feathers only appear blue to us due to microscopic structures that reflect all the other colors of light except for blue.  If you crush the feather of a cardinal, it will be red. But if you crush a blue jay feather, it will be brown. The feathers of blue grosbeaks, bluebirds, and indigo buntings contain these same blue-light-reflecting structures. That’s such a fun fact to throw out once in a while to make myself sound smart. 🙂

Quick, Make Like a Statue!

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (1) w sigI’ve got an interesting series of photos to show you today, sort of a follow up to my recent post titled The Hunter and the Hunted. The other day I glanced out the kitchen window and saw a red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) frozen in place on the side of the suet cylinder.  In the classic nuthatch pose, facing downward, he wasn’t moving a single muscle.

That simple sign told me there was a winged predator in the yard; sure enough, it only took a few seconds to find a mature Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perched in the big silver maple tree. The hawk’s view of the nuthatch was probably blocked because he was on the back side of the suet. But the little guy wasn’t taking any chances, and continued to “make like a statue” even after the hawk flew across the yard to perch on the fence.

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Even from his new location, the hawk couldn’t see the nuthatch. You may notice that this isn’t the same immature hawk that was here the other day. This one is an adult, as indicated by his red eyes and more solidly-colored breast plumage.

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A cypress that offers shelter to small birds

After about 45 seconds on the fence, the hawk dropped down behind the large cypress shrub, and the nuthatch still didn’t move. As I was enjoying the drama of this scene, I was also glad to have a nuthatch who wasn’t moving so I might have a chance to get better photos of him, though I was still hampered by the double-paned window.

The hawk remained behind the cypress for at least 15 minutes. I’ve seen several hawks drop down behind there and stay for a good amount of time, possibly feasting on the birds who like to shelter inside. When the snow melts a bit, I’ll have to check to see if there are piles of house sparrow feathers back there.

But anyway, when the hawk had been out of sight for about four minutes, the nuthatch began to move verrrry slowly.  First he turned around and waited for a couple more minutes.

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He looked to the left.

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Then he looked to the right.

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Continuing to be exceedingly cautious, he slowly creeped up and peeked up over the top of the suet.

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Finally he felt the coast was clear, and took the opportunity to fly to the relative safety of the big cedar tree.

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I don’t know if the Coop would have even bothered with a meal as tiny as a red-breasted nuthatch, but I don’t blame the little one for putting on his cloak of invisibility for a few minutes, just in case.