Trail Treasures

Do you enjoy spending time in nature and seeing cool animals? Many people are familiar with some of the wildlife that may be encountered during a hike in the woods. You might expect to see deer or turkeys or raccoons or squirrels. However, there are smaller members of the animal world that are quite fascinating and can be missed if you’re not looking carefully. There are insects that look like sticks, lizards that can lose their tails, and harmless butterflies that mimic poisonous species! I’m surprised there isn’t a Spiderman villain that was created from a radioactive butterfly bite. Believe it or not, the first female black superhero in the comics was called “The Butterfly”! Anyway, it’s time to learn about some trail treasures!

My current job at the World Bird Sanctuary involves managing the restoration of their trails. I’m engaging in the removal of invasive species and helping create an environment which fosters growth of native plants and attracts wildlife. The goal is to provide an enjoyable experience for the public and encourage them to walk the trails and interact with nature. One of my first steps in this process was to remove invasive bush honeysuckle, which releases chemicals into the soil that inhibits the growth of native plants and restricts biological diversity. While pulling out honeysuckle bushes, I often come across interesting little creatures in the forest understory. There are plenty of ants and spiders crawling across the leaf litter. Sometimes I find a turtle buried in the dirt or a frog hopping by a tree. I also occasionally find walking sticks, insects that actually look like sticks! Some species even have body parts which resembles leaves or twigs. These creatures are part of the Phasmatodea order of insects, and have a wonderful built-in camouflage system that enables them to escape detection from predators, unless you’re a predator that enjoys munching on sticks. Perhaps beavers occasionally eat walking sticks on accident?! Walking sticks are often colored brown or green to blend in with their surroundings and are quite widespread across the world. Members of the largest species can grow up to a foot and stretch out to almost two feet when you include the legs!

Walking sticks that I’ve encountered while doing trail restoration. The one on the left actually climbed into my shirt pocket!

The skink family is quite diverse, with over 1500 species spread across the world! Skinks are lizards that can often be found in forests, mountains, deserts, shopping centers, or even running around houses! One common species in the U.S. is the Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), named for the distinct pattern of lines across its back. Juveniles of this species (and some other species) have beautiful blue tails. Five-lined Skinks grow to about 5-8 inches long, and are generally found in forests or forest edges with plenty of natural cover, such as rocks, fallen logs, bark, and leaf litter. These skinks prey on a wide variety of insects, and will occasionally consume small vertebrates such as frogs and other lizards. Like many other lizard species, Five-lined Skinks can voluntarily break off segments of their tail in order to confuse or distract a predator! The tail will eventually regenerate and the skink may survive another day.

A tiny taste of skink diversity. Top left – male Five-lined Skink. Top right corner – Juvenile. Below that is a picture by J.J. Harrison of a Blue-tongued Skink in Australia. Bottom = Skilton’s Skinks.

Butterflies are interesting and colorful creatures. These animals start life as caterpillars and morphs into wonderful flying insects. My next blog will look at the often overlooked wonders of the world of butterflies. Be prepared to learn about poisonous species, species that use mimicry, and butterflies that get drunk! Hopefully this post has piqued your interest into looking for forest creatures like walking sticks and skinks when you hike in the woods. Sometimes these creatures can also be found in your backyard! If you see a small lizard running for cover across some rocks or around your house, you may be observing a skink. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden craving for pretzel sticks.

Male Lord Howe Island stick insect

Lord Howe Island pretzel stick insect, sometimes called a “land lobster”.

 

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My Neighbors are Raptors

I recently began working with the World Bird Sanctuary on a project to improve their trail network. The sanctuary cares for many birds of prey and is located in the St. Louis area in Missouri. Check out their Facebook page to see cool pictures and videos! My work with birds began with an internship at the sanctuary in 2010. That experience stirred my passion for conservation and birds and influenced the career decisions I’ve made over the past 6+ years. From handling a Golden Eagle, to marching up to 12 miles a day in the hot sun along the Gulf Coast, to being held-up at gunpoint while doing bird surveys on a Navy base, I’ve had some interesting experiences working with birds. Besides, who wouldn’t want to spend their life working with birds after being bitten and scratched by ravens, hawks, eagles, owls, and vultures? Cleaning up bird poop and preparing fine meals by gutting fish, rabbits, rats, and venison is also a bonus.

Some of the raptors that I worked with during my internship in 2010.

I’m staying on site and my room is connected to a building which houses some of the raptors which are trained for education. Many of the raptors kept at the sanctuary either cannot be released into the wild due to injuries, or have been raised by the sanctuary for educational purposes. During the day, many of the birds here spend time outside in weathering areas, which allow them to get some fresh air and sunshine. At night, they are moved indoors and provided dinner. Seeing powerful birds up close and playing a part in their conservation is an awesomely rewarding experience! There are also a number of birds staying in mews, which are structures built to house raptors. Right now, my neighbors include Bald Eagles, hawks, owls, and vultures. There are also two young Barn Owls next door that will potentially become educational flyers and ambassadors for the sanctuary. Finally, there are two Thick-billed Parrots which like to pretend they are Laughing Kookaburras. As you might imagine, my “neighborhood” is not very quiet!

A few of my new neighbors. Clockwise from top left – Livia the Red-tailed Hawk, Patriot the Bald Eagle, Desi the Hooded Vulture, and Goblin the Barn Owl.

Last night, I had a very tiny visitor – a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. There are a number of songbirds that live in the area as well as some groundhogs, possums, and a family of Raccoons! I’m fortunate to have such interesting neighbors and am looking forward to working closely with raptors again. As I’m finishing this blog, I can hear Orion (one of the young Barn Owls next door) making loud rasping noises. His roommate Whisper is quieter and rarely makes a sound. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make a bunch of bird calls and eat some rats to fit in with my neighbors.

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The Bower of Love

Many birds are known for their melodic songs, bright colors, and courtship rituals, but did you know that bowerbirds can build stick castles? Did you know that some bowerbirds will actually paint their structures and decorate them with natural and man-made objects?  Time to learn about some amazing bird engineers!

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In the forests of Australia and New Guinea, there some birds that kick up the creativity and wow factor during courtship through structural engineering. Bowerbirds are comprised of about 20 species and are named for the elaborate “bowers” that the males build to attract females. I should point out that bowers are not nests and the male does not help raise the young. Male bowerbirds gather all kinds of materials to add to the grandeur of their castles. Males will arrange an assortment of sticks, leaves, moss, colorful flowers, rocks, coins, and even plastic bottlecaps or toys to impress the ladies! Constructing a good bower takes a lot of hard work! Sometimes male bowerbirds will use a theme when designing their bower. Presenting the petals of brightly-colored flowers is commonly done by flowerbirds bowerbirds.

Bower of a Vogelkop bowerbird decorated with natural and man-made objects Decorated bower of Vogelkop bowerbird

Image result for bowerbird  Vogelkop bowerbird male, in bower arranging ornaments with habitat view

Some male bowerbirds may add color to their bowers by chewing up berries! The birds use the juice to stain their bowers! Some species, like the Satin Bowerbird, even color-code their structures! Satin Bowerbirds seem to prefer blue and will collect blue items such as berries, feathers, flowers, insects, and shells. This means that male Satin Bowerbirds are quite annoying to face in Mariokart. After the males have finished creating their palaces, females will come up to the bowers and inspect them. If a female is impressed with the male’s work, she will mate with him and then move off to build a nest. If the male’s design doesn’t meet the female’s standards, she will move on to another bower. Males will sometimes attempt to encourage a female to visit by dancing and singing. According to researchers, some bowerbirds arrange their bowers to produce optical illusions that influence visiting females! Check out this link from BBC to learn more about this! Experienced males may win the affections of multiple females over the course of the breeding season. Occasionally, a veteran male may hire a group of young bowerbirds to help defend his bower from intruders while he gathers supplies. These defenders are called bower rangers. Ducks for cover.

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              Welcome to my bower!                                            Everything is blue

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           Must find more blue items!                                         Hey ladies! I’m rich!

I hope you found this small glimpse into the world of bowerbirds interesting! They are certainly unique and fascinating birds. If you’re interested in seeing them in action, check out the videos by BBC on Youtube. Did you know that a new movie about male bowerbirds and their quest to win females is coming out soon? It’s called Lord of the Wings: The Two Bowers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find some blueberries to decorate my new log cabin.

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Look at me! I have a berry!

Amazing Animal Engineers

Did you know that some animals are excellent engineers? Did you know that if a tree falls in a forest, a beaver hears the sound? Did you know that Spiderman is capable of being an awesome engineer? Did you know that some birds build stick castles for the ladies? Time to learn about some amazing animals!

This orangutan is also a good engineer. From Mechanix Illustrated, November 1950.

First up is the quintessential wildlife engineer – the beaver. Beavers have been building dams for a lot longer than humans. Using their large teeth, these large, semi-aquatic rodents are capable of chopping down trees and maneuvering large limbs to create dams and lodges. A beaver lodge is a home made of branches, sticks, and mud. Lodges often contain an underwater opening and are a good place to raise young. Beavers will usually eat bark, twigs, leaves, and other plants. Their tail looks like a large pancake (tastes good with maple syrup) and acts like a rudder while swimming. Beavers sometimes slap their tails against the water and create a loud signal that carries across the water and warns other beavers of potential danger. I’m not sure if that includes Justin Beaver.

Juvenile and adult beaver feeding on bark  American beaver felling a tree

Beavers create dams to control the flow of water and to protect their homes. Having fast-flowing water rip through your lodge would not be fun for a beaver. Some dam systems are quite intricate and include series of canals! As you might guess, beaver engineering affects the local ecosystem in a major way. By cutting down specific trees and diverting the flow of water, beavers can impact a variety of ecological processes, plants, and other wildlife. For example, the systems of pools and waterways created by beavers can reduce flooding and soil erosion. Some plants and wildlife can thrive in the small wetlands that arise from beaver engineering. On the other hand, beaver activity may negatively affect organisms which rely on flowing water, and beaver dams have hurt some farming practices and trout fisheries. The largest beaver dam on record, is located in Alberta, Canada and is over 2700 feet in length!! That’s over twice as long as the Hoover Dam! Interestingly enough, the dam was first located using Google earth and satellite imagery! Researchers suggest that several beaver families may have contributed to this natural wonder.

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Google Earth image of the largest beaver dam in the world.

Next up are spiders. Spiders are well known for creating intricate webs made of silk. If you are bitten by a radioactive spider, you just might gain superpowers and a strong desire to talk to yourself out loud. Spiderman normally uses his webbing to swing from building to building, entrap enemies, or break a fall. However, if he had studied engineering, he could create so many amazing things. On a side note, one of the most annoying things is to walk face-first into a spiderweb. During one morning doing bird surveys, I walked into about 50 spider webs and spent a lot of time pulling sticky webbing off my glasses. Anyway, Orb-weaving Spiders (Thousands of species in the Family Araneidae) design many of the familiar spiral webs to catch prey. There are usually circular sections of the web that are comprised of sticky silk, but the orb-weavers tiptoe across non-sticky lines throughout the web. When an insect (or occasionally something bigger!) gets stuck in the web, the spider comes out and cocoons the prey for a tasty meal. Many orb-weavers actually spin new webs almost every day! Many spider webs are quite beautiful, though people don’t often stop to appreciate them due to fear of creepy, crawly things.

Golden orb spider on web Related image

Recent studies and explorations have led scientists to claim that the largest web in the world is produced by the Darwin’s bark spider. As is the case with many spiders, females are larger than males. Females are generally between 15 and 20 mm long, while males are around 5-6 mm long. Despite their tiny size, Darwin’s bark spider have been recorded creating webs over 25 meters across! The material of these webs is said to be stronger than steel or kevlar, which is used in bulletproof vests! The silk used in the webbing is also extremely elastic and resistant to breaking.  Hmm . . . maybe I should create a vest out of spider webs so that I can fight crime. By spreading out tough webs over rivers, the spiders can catch insects that frequently use the water, such as dragonflies and mayflies.

That's no washing line (Credit: Matjaž Gregorič) A Darwin's bark spider (Caerostris darwini) (Credit: Matjaž Gregorič)

Left – bark spider web spanning across a river (photo: Matjaž Gregorič).                         Right – Darwin’s bark spider (photo: Matjaž Gregorič)

I hope you find the creations of beavers and spider fascinating. Try to remember that most spiders are harmless and actually help control insect populations. Hold a pet tarantula if you need practice overcoming a fear of spiders. These animals really are amazing engineers! My next blog will spend time on bowerbirds and their efforts to create nests to impress! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to slap some water with a tennis racket and spin a bulletproof web to catch some dinner.

What Does the Fox Really Say?

A few years ago, the Norwegian duo Ylvis used a combination of techno and electronic dance music to produce a viral video about what a fox sounds like. Now their hit was obviously written in jest, but what does a fox actually sound like? What about a moose? What bird is commonly used for jungle sounds in movies? What creature can mimic car alarms? This blog will examine some interesting sounds in nature, while providing some fascinating facts and stories along the way.

Red fox in snow, side profile  Red fox cubs at den entrance

You may be familiar with the fact that foxes are Canids and are related to dogs. For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to focus on the Red Fox, which is commonly found in North America, Eurasia, Australia, and even portions of northern Africa. Red Foxes are  not picky eaters, and will consume rabbits, hares, small mammals, birds, eggs, grubs, fruit, carrion, and even trash! They adapt fairly well to a variety of environments and utilize dens for sleeping and raising young. Their bushy tails are capable of sensing underground movements through specialized hair sensors located near the tip. Okay, I made that up. So what does the fox say? Red Foxes can make some high-pitched barking noises and squeals. During the mating season, a fox may produce some unearthly screams to communicate with a partner. Males are called dogs and females are called vixens. Check out the clip below to hear some fox sounds!

Red fox carrying brown trout prey

Foxes sometimes go fishing.

Most moose calls sound similar to cow calls, with some deep bellowing and grunting. Moose are often found in forests close to water and enjoy munching on plants and twigs. Moose are the largest living species of deer, with males capable of growing up close to 7 feet high (not counting the antlers) and weighing over 1400 pounds! Apparently moose are often called “elk” in parts of Europe and Asia, which makes me wonder what name people use for elk. Anyway, do you know what my favorite moose is? White Chocolate Moose.

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If you’ve ever watched a movie that was set in the jungle, you’ve probably heard the call of the Laughing Kookaburra. Kookaburra are members of the esteemed Kingfisher family and are native to Australia, living primarily in eucalyptus forests. They have a loud, powerful call that has been described as sounding like human laughter, hence their name. The calls are used for territorial purposes and are often used near dusk and dawn, earning kookaburras the nickname “Bushman’s Clock”. Unlike some of their relatives, kookaburras do not usually eat fish, preferring to feast on small birds, mice, reptiles, and invertebrates.

Laughing kookaburra with prey in beak

Laughing kookaburra family group

There is a lot of laughter when the family gets together.

Finally we come to the Superb Lyrebird. I’m not sure if this bird can mimic a lyre, but it is capable of some astonishing imitations, including chainsaws and car alarms! Native to eastern Australia, lyrebirds are quite large for songbirds, with males capable of growing to lengths of over 3 feet. Males have large tails with fancy feathers and plumes that are used in courtship displays. Superb Lyrebirds generally eat invertebrates and are often found in eucalyptus forests, much like kookaburras! Some researchers believe that the size of a male’s vocabulary may indicate fitness and impact his attractiveness to females. Check out the cool video below to watch and listen as a male lyrebird performs his imitations! You’ll also get to hear kookaburra calls!

This is just a small taste of the wonderful symphonies found in nature. Hopefully you’ve learned something and don’t have that catchy song about foxes stuck in your head. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to attract some attention by mimicking a chain saw.

Superb lyrebird

I Conquered My Nemesis

In a recent post, I wrote about my nemesis; a crafty bird with a dark mask that had eluded me at every turn for over 3 years. There had been a couple of occasions where I heard a Black-throated Blue Warbler singing, but I was unable to catch even a glimpse of him. There were whispers, legends really, that these warblers could be found at certain sites, but my pursuits proved unfruitful. Last week, I stumbled upon some recent records that indicated my nemesis was holed up with a number of his relatives along a trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. Along with my father, I set off in the morning to find my nemesis under the guise of a nice hike in the woods. 

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Shortly after we began hiking the trail, I heard was I was eagerly listening for; the buzzy “Beer beer bee!” of a Black-throated Blue. As to be expected with a clever nemesis, we were unable to get a bead on his location among the treetops. Confident that we would have ample opportunities, I moved on down the trail. A few minutes later, I heard another one singing and my razor-sharp eyes caught a quick flash of movement. Pulling my binoculars up to my eyes, I finally saw my nemesis for the first time. The moment felt so sweet, and I realized that the years of searching and disappointment had culminated in a great victory. I watched the warbler forage among the leaves and then continued hiking, stopping to see other birds and the creeks along the path. Sometime later, a Black-throated Blue Warbler actually came out around some bushes about 5 feet away and chopped down an insect while I watched. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take a picture with my phone in time, but it was still a cool experience. I ended up seeing 4 males and a female, and also heard about 9 other males! I also saw Winter Wrens for the first time, which was a nice bonus. As I was hiking back to my car, I heard the nasally call of a Red-breasted Nuthatch in the distance, but could not locate his position. Perhaps he will become my new nemesis, but for now, I’m going to revel in my victory.

Black-throated blue warbler Black-throated blue warbler male singing

Male Black-throated Blues are quite handsome.

Male red-breasted nuthatch

Is this my new nemesis?

An ice cream celebration is certainly in my future. If you have a nemesis, keep pursuing him/her and don’t give up. Be persistent, even when disappointment strikes and eventually your efforts will be rewarded. Unless you’re trying to catch a porcupine with your mouth. And if your nemesis continues to elude you, you can always say in a deep gravelly voice, “I’ll get you next time Gadget . . . next time.”

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My Nemesis is a Bird

My dream as a young boy was to be a superhero when I grew up. My efforts to become a superhero by the traditional methods (special serum, cosmic explosions, alien powers, super tech, billionaire playboy) have failed so far. I even tried to use radioactivity, though I know from Spiderman that 90% of people who receive powers from radioactive sources become supervillains. Even though I don’t have special powers, I can still have a nemesis. One of the defining characteristics of a superhero is that he/she has at least one nemesis. Batman has the Joker. Superman has Lex Luthor. Spiderman has Doctor Octopus. My nemesis often consumes my thoughts and has constantly eluded me over the last few years. I know what he looks like from pictures, but have never actually seen him. He wears a blue and white costume with a black mask and spends much of his time in the woods. He inspires many copycats who dress the same way. He talks in a buzzy voice. My nemesis is . . . a Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Black-throated blue warbler feeding chicks

My nemesis is deep and complex because he has a family that he cares for.

Black-throated Blue Warblers spend much of their time in the trees, foraging for insects among the leaves. Males are boldly-colored and represent their name quite well. Females are a drab olive-gray, with a white patch on their wings and a pale, white eyebrow. Black-throated Blues usually nest in the northeastern U.S. and winter in the Caribbean and Central America. There is a small population that nests in the Great Smoky Mountains, which is not far from where I live. I’m pretty sure that population is taunting me with their existence. Though I’m an active birder during migration (when Black-throated Blues pass through the southeast and midwest) I had never even heard one until two years ago in Kentucky. The song sounds like a buzzy “beer beer bee!”, with the last note ascending upward. Side note: other birds also seem to have a strange fascination with beer. Alder Flycatchers say a raspy “Free beer!” and Olive-sided Flycatchers sing “Quick, three beers!” Add to this the birds that are obsessed with tea (Eastern Towhees and Carolina Wrens), and you have a bunch of wildlife dealing with addictions. Anyway, when I heard one while walking along a forest trail, I immediately ran up the path with my binoculars in hand. As I got close to the sound, I could tell it was coming from group of large deciduous trees. Unfortunately, I could not see the bird. I was unsuccessful from all viewing angles and tried using a bird app to call the warbler out. He was unresponsive and then flew off over a ravine without me getting a glimpse. I could hear him briefly calling out, taunting me. Then he was gone and I didn’t hear another Black-throated Blue until the following year in the exact same spot on the exact same day. May 9th is a day that still lingers in my mind and haunts my dreams.  The same circumstances were repeated and I again left without having caught a real glimpse of my nemesis.

Black-throated blue warbler male feeding on berry Black-throated blue warbler female feeding on berry

Black-throated Blues eat berries and drink fine wine after eluding me.

Though my efforts to see a Black-throated Blue proved unsuccessful, my resolve has not changed and I’m more motivated than ever to find one. I’m actually glad that finding one has proven so difficult. This will make the time I finally catch my nemesis that much sweeter. On a final note, I’m planning on going to a birding park this week that has nice trails and cool birds . . . and also a recent recorded sighting of a Black-throated Blue Warbler. Maybe I will finally defeat my nemesis, though I’m not sure what to do if I finally catch him. I feel like my whole life is revolving around finding this bird. Wherever you are, I hope that you will meet your nemesis soon and defeat him/her. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sing buzzy songs about beer and allow some radioactive animals to bite me.

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I should have microwaved this alligator and let him bite me to gain superpowers.