Evil invertebrate vs. good vertebrate: who you got?

The BBC has a report that the squeamish will find most disturbing: Invertebrates such as spiders and centipedes feasting on vertebrates, including birds, snakes and turtles.

Among incidents included in the story: A tarantula eating 15-inch snake that it had apparently subdued and killed last year in Brazil; a dragonfly catching a hummingbird in midair and eating it in 1977 in Canada; and Scolopendra centipedes, which regularly scales walls to either grab bats as they swoop past or pluck them from roosts while they sleep. The centipedes also eat birds, mice, lizards, frogs and snakes.

Even animal lovers can find this sort of behavior unnerving – after all, vertebrates typically eat invertebrates, not the other way around.

“Most of us are happy to watch vertebrates hunting vertebrates; if lions kill a giraffe, we might feel sadness but not revulsion, and we cheer when the baby iguana escapes the racer snakes. Similarly, if a vertebrate hunts an invertebrate, that seems normal: an early bird catching the worm is simply being enterprising,” according to the BBC. “But invertebrates eating vertebrates is another matter. We find ourselves horrified by crabs preying on baby turtles, wasps targeting nestling birds, or a giant centipede munching on a bat. Somehow it seems wrong, as if the natural order has been turned on its head – but why?”

The BBC surmises that the reason may be that we instinctively recognize that we are much more akin to other vertebrates than we are to invertebrates.

“We might not use the word “vertebrate,” but a dog is clearly more similar to us than a giant centipede,” it writes. “Not only does the dog have hair and the same number of limbs, it also behaves in understandable ways, displaying familiar emotions like happiness and anger.

“ … we cannot understand invertebrates in the same way that we understand dogs, lions or eagles,” the BBC added. “They are just too alien, their behavior too strange and their bodies too dissimilar. They do not have waggy tails and their eyes are never big and soulful.”

Or, as one of my daughter said when I asked why she didn’t like spiders: “Too many eyes, too many legs!”

If you’ve ever seen a frog swarmed over and stung to death by fire ants, or a lizard being stung repeatedly by a hornet, it does appear that things sometimes go amiss in the animal kingdom.

And while Scolopendra gigantea, also known as the Amazonian giant centipede, has yet to make its way to the US from South America, that’s one creepy-crawly I can foresee showing up in my nightmares.

(Top: I chose an image of a pug eating a sprinkled donut for this story because, well, the other photos, while interesting, would have undoubtedly upset lovers of baby turtles, small birds and other cute animals which happened to have fallen into the clutches of voracious invertebrates.)

Study shows purple sandpiper to be tough guy of bird world

cornell-bird-study

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has not only documented the migratory movements of more than 100 western hemisphere bird species but created a fascinating animated map which shows the approximate location of each throughout the year.

This is the first time data of this sort has been compiled on such a scale. It includes such extreme migrations as that of the Lapland longspur, which travels well into the Arctic Circle in July and August, and the dark-faced ground-tyrant, which makes its way to the tip of Tierra del Fuego from November through February.

There are others that migrate from Brazil and other South American countries all the way north to central Canada, a distance of 7,000 miles or more.

“We used millions of observations from the eBird citizen-science database,” said lead author Frank La Sorte, a research associate at the Cornell Lab. “After tracing the migration routes of all these species and comparing them, we concluded that a combination of geographic features and broad-scale atmospheric conditions influence the choice of routes used during spring and fall migration.”

(You can access a second map here, which will provide an index through which you can follow different species on their year-long route.)

Purple sandpiper: Tougher than it looks.

Purple sandpiper: Tougher than it looks.

Perhaps the most unusual migration is that of the purple sandpiper. This species winters near the eastern tip of Cape Breton Island, in the Canadian Maritimes, than spends its summer on Baffin Island, in far northern Canada.

While not limited to Canada, in North America the species’ breeding ground is the northern tundra on Arctic islands in Canada. They also breed in Greenland and northwestern Europe, perhaps in part to cement their role as ornithological tough guys. Anyone or anything that purposely winters in the Canadian Maritimes and also spends time in Greenland has my respect.

It appears, according to Cornell’s interactive map, that purple sandpipers have little interaction with other species, as none have migratory patterns that bring them within a couple hundred miles of the small shorebirds.

An important discovery of the study is that bird species that head out over the Atlantic Ocean during fall migration to winter in the Caribbean and South America follow a clockwise loop and take a path farther inland on their return journey in the spring, La Sorte said. These include bobolinks, yellow and black-billed cuckoos, Connecticut and Cape May warblers, Bicknell’s thrush, and shorebirds, such as the American golden plover.

“These looped pathways help the birds take advantage of conditions in the atmosphere,” he added. “Weaker headwinds and a push from the northeast trade winds as they move farther south make the fall journey a bit easier. The birds take this shorter, more direct route despite the dangers of flying over open-ocean.”

The study found the spring migration path follows a more roundabout route but the birds move faster thanks to strong tailwinds as they head north to their breeding grounds.

Species that do not fly over the open ocean use the same migration routes in the spring and fall. Geographic features shaping this pattern include mountain chains or isthmuses that funnel migrants along narrow routes, according to the study.

(Screen grab from Cornell migration study, showing location of different species on April 9. The purple sandpiper is the blue dot seen in the far eastern reaches of Canada.)

Even without color, peafowl seems plenty proud

white-peacock

While not a “birder” in the formal sense of the word, I’m often fascinated by the beauty of feathered creatures. Given their striking variety of colors, extensive array of plumage and capacity to compose a seemingly endless arrangement of songs, it’s easy to be captivated.

Occasionally, one comes upon a bird that’s particularly breathtaking, such as the above, a white peahen seen last weekend in rural South Carolina.

After a bit of research, I came to the realization that the above was not an albino peafowl, but one with a condition called leucism, which results in an overall reduction in different types of pigment.

Peahen with normal coloring.

Peahen with normal coloring.

As a result, the bird had practically no coloration in its plumage but retained its normal eye color, rather than having red or pink eyes as an albino bird would have had.

In addition, white peafowl can mate to create white offspring.

The above bird was spotted on the edge of farm and, given the presence of innumerable predators in the area and the fact that an all-white creature would have little chance of blending in in the wild, there’s no question it was a domesticated creature.

Despite the lack of blues, browns and tans normally associated with peafowl, the bird in question still strutted around as though it were the most colorful creature in the county. Some characteristics can’t be bred out, one supposes.

White peafowl have to be somewhat rare; earlier this year, when a white peacock got loose in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, it caused a bit of a stir.

Behold all creatures, even the gross and foul

buzzards

Spend enough time outdoors and you can’t help but catch glimpses of an array of picturesque birds, almost no matter where you live.

In my neck of the woods, bright cardinals, vibrant bluebirds, squawking blue jays, tittering mockingbirds, dancing thrashers and soaring hawks are regular visitors, along with a variety of smaller birds such as wrens, sparrows and warblers.

Canada geese, mallards and wood ducks are evident in waterways, as are heron, egrets and white ibises.

Cliff swallows can be found nesting on the underside of bridges, and swarm the skies at dusk, eating insects in sizeable quantities; while a variety of woodpeckers make themselves heard – and occasionally seen – including red-headed woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers.

There are also species seen only rarely, such as buntings, kingfishers, eagles, tanagers, orioles and crossbills.

Along the coast there is a vast assortment of sea birds which, given my infrequent trips to the beach, I choose to classify as gulls, terns or sandpipers. In my book, the latter two are interchangeable, encompassing everything that isn’t a gull.

One can hope that the Bird Watchers Society of the South Carolina Midlands doesn’t take offense at my ignorance and show up at my house with pitchforks and torches; they’re sensitive sorts when it comes to avifauna, I’ve been told.

This weekend I was able to see firsthand the significant diversity evident in the local avian population. Just as last year, I’ve managed to grow a nice large sunflower in my front yard. This one came up all on its own, from seeds that came off last year’s plant. Saturday I spotted a bright yellow goldfinch perched atop it, pecking at the seeds. Within a few moments a second goldfinch joined it, and the two dined away, plucking at seeds and scattering chaff.

The Eastern goldfinch is well suited for such a diet, possessing a conical beak that helps it remove seeds, along with agile feet to grip the stems of plants while feeding.

The vibrant yellow coloring of the goldfinches were brighter than that of the face of the sunflower, which had begun to darken as its seeds ripened.

A face even a mother would be hard pressed to love.

A face even a mother would be hard pressed to love.

Contrast that with the view of a day later, when, while driving through a more rural part of the state, my daughters and I came upon a roost of approximately 100 turkey buzzards perched in a dead oak tree. The tree was  situated in a low-lying swamp, approximately 15 feet below that of the rural highway, so many of the birds were eye level with us.

If you haven’t seen a turkey buzzard, you haven’t seen ugly. A large bird with a wingspan of up to six feet, the turkey buzzard has feathers that are brownish-black. Its head seems too small for its body and is often red like the comb of a rooster, with no feathers.

It has a short, hooked beak and its feet are pale. Adding to the bird’s strange appearance are its eyes, which feature “a single incomplete row of eyelashes on the upper lid and two rows on the lower lid,” according to Wikipedia.

The turkey buzzard is pure scavenger and loves carrion. It finds its food using its eyes and sense of smell, flying low enough to detect the gases produced by the beginnings decaying process in dead animals. Many a time I’ve come across a “wake” of buzzards hopping and flapping around a deer carcass, fighting each other for the right to rip off a strip of dead flesh.

Because turkey buzzards lack a syrinx – the vocal organ of birds – its sounds are limited to grunts or low hisses.

Other facts that always win folks over to turkey buzzards: They feed their young through regurgitation; to cool down they spread their wings and urinate on their legs; and, best of all, the turkey buzzard’s method of self-defense is to vomit its food. Yes, when one is disturbed or harassed, it will throw up on the creature bothering it and can send said upchuck sailing as far as 10 feet.

That recalls a memorable scene in John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony when youthful protagonist Jody finds his young pony dead just as a buzzard has sunk its beak into one of the deceased creature’s eyes. Jody, enraged, attacks the buzzard, which responds by vomiting on him. (Steinbeck wasn’t exactly noted for treacly prose.)

For us, stopped on quiet backroad, though, the view was quite remarkable. It was almost medieval to see scores of buzzards hunched on the bare branches of an old oak as twilight approached. Some took flight, and the “swoop, swoop, swoop” of their wings made an indelible impression.

Most of the birds didn’t travel far, just to another tree a bit further away, where they perched, silhouetted against a slowly darkening sky.

One supposes every creature has its role in the ecosystem, but given my druthers I’d rather pull seeds from a healthy sunflower or snatch mosquitos out of midair than fight half a dozen other vomit-happy birds in order to tear apart roadkill on a back country highway.

Besieged by a (very small) plague of (very cute) toads

Girls Riding Small Frog 5 29 2016 049

There are many advantages to spring in the South, but for wildlife lovers few things beat getting out and spending time in the woods, swamps and countryside this time of year.

During the latest three-day weekend I was able to capture or catch a view of a multitude of critters – including largemouth bass, bream, box turtles, yellow-bellied sliders, cowbirds, painted buntings, egrets, blue herons, black racers, damsel flies, dragonflies, tadpoles, leopard frogs, river rats, blue crabs, fiddler crabs and hermit crabs.

In addition, I came across a hive of bees holed up in an abandoned building, a four-foot copperhead and six-foot alligator, all of which I chose to leave undisturbed.

Those that I caught – the bass, box turtles and fiddler crabs – were all freed.

But perhaps the most interesting beast I came across this weekend was the one shown at the top of this post. Near as I can tell, it’s a very young Fowler’s toad. I found it when I opened my garage Sunday morning. And there wasn’t just one of the little amphibians, but a whole slew of them hopping about.

Pharaoh besieged by plague of frogs. Note: Believed to a depiction, not a real image of the biblical plague.

Pharaoh, apparently a deep sleeper, besieged by plague of frogs. Note: Believed to be a dramatization.

I was initially reminded of the Plagues of Egypt, one of which featured the land of Pharaoh being overwhelmed with frogs, except my driveway featured perhaps a dozen of the tiny beasts and even had there been, say, millions, they were so small the only way they could have overwhelmed anyone would have been with their cuteness.

The one in the photo was desperately intent on making his way into my garage.

Recognizing that it would likely either end up under the wheel of a car or dying of heat prostration once I closed the door, I spent the better part of thirty seconds trying to convince it to head back to whence it came. It would have none of it.

Recognizing that the diminutive toad was either very bold or very stupid, I gently scooped it up and placed him on some nearby grass.

As I did so I noticed several other small toads hopping toward me. I quickly shut the garage, hopped in my car, which was parked in the driveway, and drove off. I had no desire for anyone else to take note of my newfound talent as the Pied Piper of tiny toads.

An unintended foray into falconry proves fulfilling

hawk paint

One of my many blessings is that my children love the outdoors and wildlife as much as I do. They’re always up for wading in a creek, tramping through the woods or driving to some distant unpopulated region for a gander at local fauna. Yesterday, I was rewarded once again for their willingness to abide by their dad’s need to get outside.

While trying to make the best of a wet afternoon we took a drive through rural farmland 15 miles north of home. Along one stretch of rural countryside we saw a red-tailed hawk go hopping across the road. A vehicle came slowly in the other direction and the bird of prey, rather than flying away, bounded off the road and into a ditch.

As the other vehicle passed, I pulled my car over and told my girls to take pictures of the hawk, which was about 15 feet away. I then got out of the car and slowly moved toward it. I could tell something wasn’t right, but I expected it to burrow into the nearby hedgerow and thereby elude me.

Instead, it stayed where it was, eyeing me warily. I got within about three feet and had one of my daughters bring me a sweatshirt. Given the size of the raptor’s beak and talons, I very carefully tried to wrap the sweatshirt around it. The hawk fell back at first, but didn’t put up too much of a fight.

I was able to carefully pick it up and show it to my girls, who, being 15, 14 and 12, were all “oohs” and “ahs.”

Me with somewhat confused red-tailed hawk. No hawks or humans were harmed in the making of this image.

Me with somewhat confused red-tailed hawk. No hawks or humans were harmed in the making of this image.

The hawk was wet and cold. We decided that given the weather – cold and rainy with more of the same expected for the foreseeable future – we would take it to a wildlife rescue shelter about 20 miles away.

One of my girls brought me another sweatshirt, this one pink, so we could make sure his talons were wrapped up and dad didn’t end up with deep lacerations about his body, and I slowly lowered myself into the car holding the hawk. Gently clutching our new companion with my left hand, I started the car and pulled forward, steering with my right hand.

My daughters were transfixed by the bird. Although most of the cinnamon-colored hawk was wrapped up, they could easily see its sharp beak and proud eyes, which gave it a fierce visage.

It was, like most birds, incredibly light for its size, weighing no more than 3 or 4 pounds. But it was two feet tall from head to talons, and its wingspan would likely have been at least four feet, had it had an opportunity to show off its plumage.

Not surprising given the car’s occupants, it was quickly given a series of names: Cooper (we initially thought it was a Cooper’s Hawk); Cosmo and Xenon (being a noble-looking bird, Daughter No. 4 thought it should be named for one of the noble gases and helium, neon, krypton and radon weren’t cutting it.) Ultimately, it ended up with three different names – one from each daughter – none of which, of course, the bird showed any interest in responding to.

A good portion of the trip was on an Interstate, and while I was busy keeping my eyes either on the road or the bird, hoping it wouldn’t decide to crane its neck around and take a nip at my neck or face, I can only image what fellow drivers thought as they passed our car and caught a glimpse of a middle-aged man driving down the road with a fierce-looking raptor sitting on his lap.

We eventually made our way to the Carolina Wildlife Center with neither man nor hawk suffering injury or embarrassment.

As I carried the bird of prey into the center I noticed the other rescued animals on hand, including a baby possum, a squirrel and a blue jay. I somehow resisted the urge to thump my chest, swagger around and crow about how my beast could not only best all the others, but eat each one, as well.

Instead, we filled out an information card, thanked them for taking our hawk and went on our way.

The mystery behind fledglings lighting up on the down low

birds smoking

While there’s no doubt that the US government has been known to squander money that would seem better used elsewhere – see the $856,000 National Science Foundation grant allotted to the University of California at Santa Cruz to, among other things, teach mountain lions how to use a treadmill, for example – there are some pie-in-the-sky projects that I would love to see funded.

Take the above image. If government officials needed money to create a device that could translate bird-speak so that it was intelligible to humans, then required additional cash to develop a way-back machine in order to go to the above point in the past, so that they could interpret what our two feathered juvenile delinquents were saying to one another, that is a project with which I would have absolutely no issue.

Are they discussing where to steal birdseed? What’s the best place to perch their rear ends and “roost?” Where the “easy” chickadees hang out? We just don’t know, and that, at least in my opinion, is one of modern science’s great failings.

Just think, if this pair were a little bigger and had opposable thumbs, they’d probably be ruling the planet by now.

And don’t tell me this image was photoshopped. I for one am prepared to hail our new avian overlords.

(Required disclaimer: I in no way condone underage smoking among fish, fowl or other beasts of the wild, and hope these two fledglings got a sound thrashing when they returned to their nest.)