Three years ago we observed a bird of prey catching and eviscerating a starling in front of our living room window. At the time we thought it was a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), and labelled it accordingly. But almost everyone who’s seen the photos and video since then thinks it’s a female merlin (Falco columbarius) rather than a peregrine. Under the weight of so many opinions I’ve had to revise my original opinion. The only problem is that merlins aren’t normally found here in the winter, which makes the encounter all the more perplexing — and fascinating.
My Correct Views on Everything
↳ Biology & Nature
Shawville is abuzz with reports of a tame deer approaching people in the middle of town. (She’s turned up at the high school on more than one occasion.) We encountered her ourselves last Monday evening during a walk: she followed us at a discreet distance for about 700 metres before we were able to shake her off.
There’s speculation that some family took her in as a fawn and fed her for a while, then released her when she was older. Now people are increasingly concerned for her well-being. (Ironically, in a town full of hunters, with deer meat in their freezers, and deer season around the corner.) The authorities apparently say (I’m getting this third-hand) that she’s too old to be placed in a wildlife rescue. As you can see from the photo, she’s awfully thin: she was probably “rescued” at too young an age, and does not know how to forage for herself.
Wildlife should not be fed, and this is one of the reasons why: now she can’t figure out how to feed herself, and will starve if we don’t do it for her. She’s running free in a town full of cars and hunters, a lonely herd animal with no herd to belong to: it’s only a matter of time before she is run over or is shot or starves. This is why “helping” wildlife doesn’t help: you damage the animal’s ability to survive on its own.
Last year, the old brick chimney at Dr. S. E. McDowell Elementary School was reduced in height and capped; without knowing it, the WQSB had eliminated the roosting site of something like 200 chimney swifts. Since then there has been a grassroots campaign to provide a replacement roosting structure for the migrating swifts, raising funds online and securing support from the school board (Ottawa Citizen, OFNC). That structure went up last week just as the swifts were returning. And it looks like they’re using it, too: on three nights we saw the swifts circling their new structure, and on two nights (see this photo and above from last Saturday) we saw them entering the structure. (This is taking place only 250 metres from where we live.)
I’m on record about my own entomophobia (i.e., a fear of insects and other arthropods), so it’s with considerable (if guarded) interest that I note the publication of a new book, The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects, a broad examination of the human fear of insects by Jeffrey Lockwood, an entomologist who, if you can believe it, has to deal with bouts of entomophobia. Here’s an interview with the author. It sounds fascinating and relevant to my interests; I’m just not sure I can bring myself to read it. Via Andrew Sullivan.
We have a hummingbird feeder; occasionally, hummingbirds visit it. But they’re there for so short a time that I’m never able to take a photo of one of them. Even if I had the digital SLR in hand, by the time I said, “hey, a hummingbird,” powered up the camera and pointed it at the feeder, the little bird would have been long gone.
The latest new species to arrive at our bird feeders appears to be the Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus). It’s a passerine finch that resembles the goldfinches and redpolls we see more frequently. Like goldfinches and redpolls, they flock in substantial numbers: I counted more than 20 of them today. More photos here, here and here.
So what is the situation with cardinals in the Ottawa Valley?
A decade or more ago, when I was living in Ottawa, I was given to understand that Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) were a relatively recent arrival to the area — that their range was, thanks to climate change, gradually moving northward. Fast forward to today — or rather, yesterday, when a cardinal arrived in our yard, the first one either of us had seen, anywhere. (See photos above.) I announced the fact breathlessly on Twitter, but it doesn’t seem to be as big a deal as I thought. Apparently cardinals are a common sight in Ottawa — how long has that been going on? Granted, we’re further up the Valley, so if the range has been moving northward slowly, then they may just be turning up here now. Or am I mistaken? Are cardinals a big deal around here or not?
We’ve been seeing these little black and orange bugs all over the place this year, but now as things are getting cooler they’re turning up in great numbers, especially along our south wall, where they seem to be aggregating to soak up the heat. My best guess is that these are boxelder bugs (Boisea trivittata). According to this page, they’re abundant during hot and dry summers (which this has been) and in the fall they can turn up in homes as they look for a place to spend the winter. We’ve had a few get in, but nothing like the numbers turning up outside. You know about my entomophobia; I can tolerate these fellows better than I can, say, earwigs or cockroaches, but I’m not exactly beside myself with glee here.
Hundreds of freshwater jellyfish have turned up again in Star Lake, a small lake in Manitoba’s Whiteshell Provincial Park. Hold on — there’s such a thing as freshwater jellyfish? Yes. It’s an invasive but apparently non-noxious species now found globally; the medusa stage only emerges when it’s warm. Which is kind of more often now, even in Manitoba.
Slate’s Jessica Grose on the case of a grizzly bear implicated in the deaths of two hikers in Yellowstone.
The euthanization of the bear known as “the Wapiti sow” was the culmination of a series of horrifying events that had gripped Yellowstone for months, and alarmed rangers, visitors, and the conservation biologists tasked with keeping grizzly bears safe. In separate incidents in July and August, grizzlies had killed hikers in Yellowstone, prompting a months-long investigation replete with crime scene reconstructions and DNA analysis, and a furious race to capture the prime suspect. The execution of the Wapiti sow opens a window on a special criminal justice system designed to protect endangered bears and the humans who share their land. It also demonstrates the difficulty of judging animals for crimes against us. The government bear biologists who enforce grizzly law and order grapple with the impossibility of the task every day. In the most painful cases, the people who protect these sublime, endangered animals must also put them to death.
Last Saturday Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, had an experience very similar to ours: a raptor taking down a bird right outside his house. Also similar: some confusion, and considerable discussion, as to what species the raptor in question is (in his case, red-tailed vs. Cooper’s hawk).
It’s been three weeks since our own raptor experience and we’re still not entirely sure what bird it was: neither peregrine falcons nor merlins are really supposed to be here, especially at this time of year. On balance we still think it’s a peregrine, due to the size of the bird and the fact that merlins are supposed to be migratory, but we’re a long way from metaphysical certitude on this issue.
A bit of excitement this morning. I suppose it was only a matter of time before something that predated on birds made an appearance around here, what with all the birds we’ve been attracting to the feeders and especially the sheer number of finches and starlings we’ve seen around here. That something, this morning, was a peregrine falcon, which took down and eviscerated a starling only a few metres from our living room window. We’re 90 percent sure that this is a juvenile peregrine falcon rather than, say, a merlin; Jennifer went through all her field guides to be certain.
I took plenty of photos, though their quality was hampered by the fact that I was shooting with a 55-200mm zoom through spotty window glass. (I need a longer lens.) I also captured about a minute’s worth of video in which the falcon was busily ripping flesh from the still-thrashing starling. Nature red in tooth and claw, et cetera. But so damn cool.
It boggles my mind that we can see, just by looking through our living room window, what others have to travel long distances to get a glimpse of.
ScienceDaily reports on the recovery of the Eastern Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus collaris collaris) in the Missouri Ozarks. By the mid-1980s, the lizards had disappeared from 75 percent of the Ozark glades in which they had previously been found. Biologist Alan Templeton discovered that the culprit was forest fire suppression: a lack of forest fires meant that red cedars colonized and wiped out their glade habitats. Small burns helped translocated lizards survive in separate glades between 1984 and 1994, but it took widespread burning for the lizards to thrive:
The major revelation of the work was that burning entire mountains and valleys, called landscape-level burning, undid ecological damage that was slowed but not stopped by smaller prescribed burns.
In fact, it allowed the lizards to undertake their own expanded restoration effort without the assistance of worried biologists.
Moreover, burning benefited many species besides the lizards, including a rare fen orchid and fen dragonfly, that were flying under the radar and would probably never have commanded labor intensive restoration efforts on their own.
In short, fire turned restoration from a time-consuming labor-intensive process to one that ran pretty much on its own.
Thanks to Fred Schueler for the link. Alternate news link. Templeton’s research was published in the September 2011 issue of Ecology. Photo of an Eastern Collared Lizard in Missouri’s Peck Ranch Conservation Area, where Templeton did his restoration work, by Anthony Zukoff; reprinted under a Creative Commons licence.
Brigette Zacharczenko is a graduate student in entomology. As a side business, she makes plush animals of insects, other invertebrates, and other interesting animals; she sells them at her Etsy store, Weird Bug Lady. I’m not sure where else you could get plush nudibranchs, water bears, copepods or eelpouts. She’s also fond of reptiles: there are several plush snakes available, including a garter snake (dibs!).
We spotted a huge number of caterpillars climbing through (and munching on) the dill in our garden yesterday. So of course my reaction was to grab the camera and take some photos through the macro lens, rather than, you know, squash them for eating our dill. (Evidently we don’t use dill that much.) It turns out that they were the larvae of the Black Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes), which lays its eggs on dill and other plants. Whence the name “dillworm” for its caterpillars, I guess.
Jennifer got one of them to evert its osmeterium, but my photos of that didn’t turn out. (Bug photos are hard, you know?)
For the past few weeks I’ve been woken up by the cries of young birds every morning. It took me a while to figure out which birds were responsible, and it turns out that young blue jays are the culprit. We have a whole family of them nearby — I counted at least five today — but it’s only in the last couple of days or so that I’ve seen any juveniles. They must have fledged relatively recently. I managed to photograph one of the post-fledge juveniles this morning at the feeder. I like blue jays, but man, their kids are too loud.
I’ve long felt that a GPS-equipped digital camera would be a great tool for field-naturalist work — you’ve got a photographic record of the species with embedded location data — but clearly I wasn’t thinking it all the way through. National Geographic News Watch reports on an iPhone app that uploads said geotagged photo to iNaturalist.org, which looks like a social networking site for field naturalists that maps everyone’s observations (and if you can’t figure out what your picture is of, someone will likely be along to ID it). You don’t need the iPhone app to use the site, but that’s a slick way of doing it. Via Kingsnake.com.
Changes at the bird feeders. The redpolls seem to have moved on, and the goldfinches are starting to trickle back, but no more than half a dozen at once so far. A far cry from the masses seen previously. Meanwhile, migratory species have been showing up — species that winter south of us and summer north of us — which has sent Jennifer to her field guides and iBird to see what’s what. Sparrows and finches we’ve never seen before. Grosbeaks! I don’t know which of these are just passing through, and which are locals who’ve finally found out about the crazy lady with all the bird feeders. And that’s on top of the usual suspects: the hairy woodpeckers, nuthatches, blue jays, crows, pigeons, starlings, grackles, mourning doves, chicakadees and juncos.
Another short item in Maclean’s about a new tool to determine whether an endangered species is worth saving: the SAFE (“species’ ability to forestall extinction”) index, which “takes current and minimum viable population sizes into account to determine if it’s just too expensive to save a particular animal.” (The article abstract doesn’t quite put it that way, but does cite population viability.) Essentially, it’s a way of assessing the extent to which an endangered species can be saved — think of it as a species-at-risk triage. Maclean’s points to the northern hairy-nosed wombat as an example of a species that may be too far gone to bring back.
Things have gotten downright Darwinian at the bird feeders lately. Several squadrons of Common Redpoll, which we haven’t seen at the feeder before, have descended upon the feeders and seem to have almost completely displaced our regular visitors, the American Goldfinches. Where there were once as many as 20 goldfinches feeding at one time, we now see around twice as many redpolls. If there are any goldfinches fighting for a feeding spot in that melee, it’s two or three at most. The two finch species do not seem to be taking turns: I haven’t seen the goldfinches wait for the redpolls to finish; it’s either redpolls or nothing. The redpolls appear to be a bit more fearless; they’re certainly more numerous. I imagine the goldfinches will admit defeat and head elsewhere, if they haven’t already done so. The chickadees, starlings, nuthatches and woodpeckers, who arrive in ones and twos and don’t swarm like sky piranhas, seem unaffected.
Finch behaviour at the feeders was interesting even before the redpolls turned up. When startled, which was often, they would fly off at once. Usually all but one bird, who would keep eating at the feeder. I thought to myself when I saw that a few times: here are birds that hedge their bets. Most are choosing to flee, on the basis that your chances of survival improve if you give up opportunities to eat, but spend energy fleeing from danger. But then there’s one bird that chooses to accept a higher risk of being eaten in order to get at more food. This is diversification in the financial sense, applied to natural selection — spreading out risk by, in this case, adopting multiple survival strategies.