Bird Fact Friday — Hummingbirds

Adapted from pages 158-159 of Birds of Chile:

The Oasis Hummingbird is identifiable by its distinctive small hummer, long, slightly arched bill, and rusty rump. Males have long forked tail, and a messy gorget. These hummingbirds are found in North Chile, mainly in oasis valleys. They are also vagrant south of Santiago. While these birds can often be spotted perched on phone wires, they can also be seen in gardens, desert scrubs, and orchards. They are larger than most hummingbirds. Their call sounds like a tickling chip, that’s somewhat lower and harder than other hummingbirds. 

A male Oasis Hummingbird (Rhodopis vesper).

 

An adult Sparkling Violet-ear (Colibri coruscans).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, the Sparkling Violet-ear is a rather large and green hummingbird, with no similar species in Chile. Immature birds are duller with reduced violet heads, while adults can be identified by their broad, dark tail band. These birds are frequently seen North of the Andes, but are scarce in Arica. They are typically seen near agricultural areas with flowering Eucalyptus and gardens. Their songs, which they sing from mid-upper level perches, are metallic, rhythmic chirping (tchi-chin tchi-chin) which is repeated tirelessly. Their sexes are indistinguishable. 

Birds of Chile
A Photo Guide
By Steve N. G. Howell & Fabrice Schmitt

This is the first modern-style photographic field guide to the birds of Chile, an increasingly popular destination with birders and naturalists. Compact and easy to carry, pack, and use, Birds of Chile is ideal for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike, providing everything anyone needs to identify the birds they see. Clear photographs and brief, facing-page species accounts highlight what to look for and how to quickly identify species. The photos include both close-ups and birds-in-habitat images to further aid real-life identification. An introduction and maps provide an overview of Chile’s geographic regions and their distinctive birdlife. Birds of Chile is also a great resource for birding in nearby countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

  • The first field-friendly photographic guide to the birds of Chile
  • More than 1,000 real-life photos and brief, facing-page text make bird identification easy
  • Overview and maps describe the distinct bird regions of Chile
  • Perfect for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike
  • Compact and easy to carry and pack
  • Also a great resource for birding in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru

 

Amazing Arachnids: The Lace-Weaver Spiders

Amazing Arachnids is a new, month-long series from Princeton Nature. Each week, we’ll highlight one of the unique arachnids found in Jillian Cowles’ richly illustrated and up-close look at the secret lives of spiders.

Adapted from page 229 of the text: 

Broad, black chelicerae and a stocky build give members of the family Amaurobiidae a powerful appearance suggestive of bulldogs. The imposing physique of these spiders contrasts with the delicate beauty of their webs, built of woolly cribellate silk. These characteristic webs give this family its name “lace-weaver spiders” or “hacklemesh weavers.” The cribellate silk of the web radiates out from a tunnel retreat, where the spider lies in wait. Insects become tangled in these hackled threads, giving time for the spider to rush out from its hiding place and catch the prey.

Amaurobius has a truly remarkable natural history in regard to its reproduction. In the case of Amaurobius ferox (an introduced species from Europe reportedly found in southern California), the mother spider lays her first clutch of eggs and stays nearby to guard them until the babies hatch. This maternal behavior is consistent with many other species of arachnids and is therefore hardly noteworthy. But then it gets interesting. After the spiderlings emerge from the egg sac, they interact with their mother, and she is induced by this interaction to lay a second clutch of eggs. This time, the eggs are laid before they are mature, and consequently this clutch of eggs serves as food for the spiderlings that hatched from the first clutch. This is referred to as trophic egg laying and is a strategy employed by several other species of animals, including some species of poison dart frogs. The spiderlings that receive this food are heavier and have a higher survival rate than spiderlings deprived of the trophic egg meal.

Callobius arizonicus. Callobius are found in cool areas, such as the mountains of Arizona and the forests of California.

But the mother spider’s sacrifice does not end there. The mother and her offspring interact further, and this time she actually appears to solicit her babies to feed on her. This the babies do, collectively killing and feeding on their mother. This matriphagy appears to be regulated by the life stage of the spiderlings, the reproductive state of the mother, and the behavioral interactions of the mother and her young. The spiderlings derive considerable benefit from this behavior. They are heavier and larger at the time they disperse compared with spiderlings deprived of their mother as food, including groups of spiderlings given an abundance of other prey to eat.

Finally, the matriphagous spiderlings have a longer period of social behavior, compared with the nonmatriphagous spiderlings. The subsocial spiderlings live together through several instar stages on the web of their mother, cooperatively killing prey and sharing it. The maternal web appears to provide a superior platform for the offspring to detect and cooperatively kill prey, as compared with webs that the spiderlings construct themselves. Prey that would be too large for one or two spiderlings to overcome is killed by groups of spiderlings, and that prey is shared even with those that did not take part in that particular kill. The spiderlings appear to use coordinated teamwork to subdue prey that is up to 10 times the size of any individual spiderling. Cooperative prey capture increases predation efficiency and survival of all the spiderlings.

Most of the members of the family Amaurobiidae live in cool, moist habitats, making their webs under debris, in caves, or in the nooks and crannies of trees. California boasts the greatest diversity of these spiders in the United States. In the arid southwestern states, Callobius arizonicus lives principally at higher elevations where it is cooler and moister. Found under rocks and dead wood, several individual Callobius spiders may share a single shelter. Only centimeters may separate their webs, indicating some degree of tolerance between individuals of the same species. Also like Amaurobius, Callobius guards her egg sac, which is produced in the shelter of her refuge. But in the case of Callobius, it is unknown whether the mother spider feeds her young.

 

Amazing Arachnids
By Jillian Cowles

The American Southwest is home to an extraordinary diversity of arachnids, from spitting spiders that squirt silk over their prey to scorpions that court one another with kissing and dancing. Amazing Arachnids presents these enigmatic creatures as you have never seen them before. Featuring a wealth of color photos of more than 300 different kinds of arachnids from eleven taxonomic orders–both rare and common species—this stunningly illustrated book reveals the secret lives of arachnids in breathtaking detail, including never-before-seen images of their underground behavior.

Amazing Arachnids covers all aspects of arachnid biology, such as anatomy, sociality, mimicry, camouflage, and venoms. You will meet bolas spiders that lure their victims with fake moth pheromones, fishing spiders that woo their mates with silk-wrapped gifts, chivalrous cellar spiders, tiny mites, and massive tarantulas, as well as many others. Along the way, you will learn why arachnids are living fossils in some respects and nimble opportunists in others, and how natural selection has perfected their sensory structures, defense mechanisms, reproductive strategies, and hunting methods.

  • Covers more than 300 different kinds of arachnids, including ones new to science
  • Features more than 750 stunning color photos
  • Describes every aspect of arachnid biology, from physiology to biogeography
  • Illustrates courtship and mating, birth, maternal care, hunting, and defense
  • Includes first-ever photos of the underground lives of schizomids and vinegaroons
  • Provides the first organized guide to macroscopic mites, including photos of living mites for easy reference

 

Bird Fact Friday – the Parakeets of Chile

Adapted from pages 152-153 of Birds of Chile:

The Slender-billed Parakeet is endemic to the Lake District, from Araucanía to Chiloé. It is fairly common in farmland, other semi-open areas with forest patches and scattered tall trees. They frequently travel in scattered pairs or flocks, often numbering in the 100s, even 1000s. The feed in trees and on the ground, digging with its bills for seeds. They typically fly at a treetop level, but are also known for going high overhead, especially when in large flocks. Varied raucous and shrieky calls at times suggest lapwings. They are identifiable by their long, slender bill hook, and bright red face patch.

The Austral Parakeet resembles the Slender-billed Parakeet, though the latter has brighter blue wings. These birds are typically found in South or Central Chile, and are fairly common north of Maule. They are native to forests and woodland, and live adjacently to farmland with forest patches. They typically live in pairs or small flocks, rarely exceeding 100 birds. They do not mix with the Slender-billed Parakeet. These parakeets typically feed in trees or on the ground, and fly mostly near treetop height. Their calls are varied, raucous screeches. 

Monk Parakeets are found in central Chile, where they are local but increasingly escaped cage birds, mainly in Santiago and Valparaíso. They are found in parks, urban and rural areas with taller trees, and they frequently feed in trees and on the ground. They nest colonially in bulky stick nests at mid-upper levels in trees. They can be identified by their are rasping shrieks, or lower, more gravelly calls. These birds have a distinct look due to their ashy-gray faces and chests; no other species in Chile look like this.

Finally, the Burrowing Parakeet is native to Central Chile, often found in the Andean foothills from south Atacama to Male. These birds are typically seen in open woodland and farmland with nearby bluffs or cliffs, where they nest colonially in burrows. They typically roam in pairs or small flocks, on the ground or in trees. They are known for their laughing calls, singly or in a series. These parakeets also have a distinct, unmistakable look, with a dark green face, white chest, yellow-red underparts, and dark wings.

Fly over to our Instagram to see photos of these four birds.

 

 

Birds of Chile
A Photo Guide
By Steve N. G. Howell & Fabrice Schmitt

This is the first modern-style photographic field guide to the birds of Chile, an increasingly popular destination with birders and naturalists. Compact and easy to carry, pack, and use, Birds of Chile is ideal for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike, providing everything anyone needs to identify the birds they see. Clear photographs and brief, facing-page species accounts highlight what to look for and how to quickly identify species. The photos include both close-ups and birds-in-habitat images to further aid real-life identification. An introduction and maps provide an overview of Chile’s geographic regions and their distinctive birdlife. Birds of Chile is also a great resource for birding in nearby countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

  • The first field-friendly photographic guide to the birds of Chile
  • More than 1,000 real-life photos and brief, facing-page text make bird identification easy
  • Overview and maps describe the distinct bird regions of Chile
  • Perfect for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike
  • Compact and easy to carry and pack
  • Also a great resource for birding in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru

Insect of the Week: A Guide to Lightningbug Linguistics

Ever wish you could understand what the fireflies are saying? Well, you can!

The fireflies you’ll see most often in the eastern United States belong to one of the 34+ species of Photinus lightningbugs. These familiar fireflies fill our summer evenings with delight – they’re easy to catch because they fly at a leisurely pace, low above the ground. During summer months, different species make brief appearances, each with a mating season that lasts only a few weeks. Different Photinus species also start their courtship flashing at different times of night: certain species court just at dusk, while others wait until full darkness.

Taxonomically speaking, you need to inspect the male genitalia to really pin down Photinus species identifications. But many species also differ in the pattern and timing of their courtship flashes. So you can learn to distinguish species by paying close attention to the exchange of flash signals between males and females (using a stopwatch will help).

Photinus courtship goes like this: each evening, flying males advertise their availability by broadcasting a species-specific flash pattern. Females, who can fly but generally don’t, sit perched in vegetation and watch for males as they pass by. A females may respond to attractive male by curling her abdomen in his direction and giving him a flash back – it’s her “come hither” sign! When he flies closer and flashes again, they might strike up a conversation. This back-and-forth flash dialog will continue – often attracting other amorous males – until the pair finally meets and mates.

The guide below will help you decipher the distinctive courtship flash patterns given by 11 of our common Photinus species:

Here’s how to read the chart: for each species, the males’ flash patterns are shown in blue, next to the response flashes of their corresponding female (shown in red, note change in time scale).

The top six rows show species where the male flash pattern consists of a single pulse of light that’s repeated at fixed time intervals. You can recognize what Photinus species these males belong to by paying close attention to their flash timing. For instance, Photinus pyralis males give a leisurely flash (about ¾ of a second in duration), which they repeat every 5-6 seconds. In contrast, Photinus marginellus males emit a quick flash (less than ½  a second), and repeat this every 3 seconds.

The next three rows show Photinus species where males emit a double-pulsed flash pattern. Here it’s the time interval between the two pulses that differs among species; this interval ranges from about ½ second in Photinus consanguineus to 2 seconds in Photinus macdermotti. In the last two species males give multiple pulses that vary in the number and interval between pulses.

Female responses are illustrated on the right-hand side of the chart. Look down in the grass for females, and measure how long it takes them to answer a male’s flash. In Photinus marginellus, females will respond almost immediately (within less than a second), while Photinus ignitus females have a response delay of about 4 seconds.

With practice, you can use these flash patterns to recognize many different Photinus species, so step outside and have some fun! You can learn more about these courtship conversations in Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies.

 

silent sparksSilent Sparks
The Wondrous World of Fireflies

For centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

Bird Fact Friday: Seedeaters

Adapted from pages 220-221 of Birds of Chile:

The Chestnut-throated Seedeater is fairly common in the oasis valleys of Arica, as well as Northern lowlands. These birds – which are typically 10.5-11cm in length – flock in agricultural areas with brushy hedgerows and weedy fields. They can often be found singing on phone wires, with a song that is squeaky and slightly tinny. This song’s tempo varies from leisurely to rapid and bubbly; at times it’s prolonged. Their call is either a nasal cheh or a slightly smacking tchip. Males can be identified with their gray head and back in breeding plumage; females have faint streaking on their breast and a big, pinkish bill. Male juveniles resemble females, but are buffer.

A female Chestnut-throated Seedeater (Sporophila telasco).

A male Band-tailed Seedeater (Catamenia analis).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Band-tailed Seedeater is found in the North Andes, and is fairly common in the precordillera of Arica. They can be seen in shrubby slopes and agricultural areas or villages, while they frequently feed in bushes and on the ground, often with other seed-eating birds in recently cut alfalfa fields. Their song is varied short buzzes and buzzy, ringing trills; at times it becomes a high, chipping twitter. Their call is a high, slightly buzzy tzzip or tzzip-zzip. Both sexes have stubby, yellowish bills, a rusty vent, and a white band at the base of their tail best seen in flight.

Birds of Chile
A Photo Guide
By Steve N. G. Howell & Fabrice Schmitt

This is the first modern-style photographic field guide to the birds of Chile, an increasingly popular destination with birders and naturalists. Compact and easy to carry, pack, and use, Birds of Chile is ideal for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike, providing everything anyone needs to identify the birds they see. Clear photographs and brief, facing-page species accounts highlight what to look for and how to quickly identify species. The photos include both close-ups and birds-in-habitat images to further aid real-life identification. An introduction and maps provide an overview of Chile’s geographic regions and their distinctive birdlife. Birds of Chile is also a great resource for birding in nearby countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

  • The first field-friendly photographic guide to the birds of Chile
  • More than 1,000 real-life photos and brief, facing-page text make bird identification easy
  • Overview and maps describe the distinct bird regions of Chile
  • Perfect for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike
  • Compact and easy to carry and pack
  • Also a great resource for birding in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru

 

Plants That Kill: Neem Tree

Adapted from page 217 of Plants That Kill:

Neem, also known as Indian neem, is grown across the tropics and subtropics as a shade tree, for reforestation programmes and in plantations for production of azadirachtin, but is considered invasive in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Australia, where it has become naturalized. The seeds of Philippine neem (Azadirachta excelsa), which is native to Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam, and has naturalized in Singapore and Thailand, are also a source of neem insecticides. However, even though neem-based pesticides are a good biological alternative to synthetic compounds, accidental ingestion of neem products or seeds has resulted in a number of deaths, especially in children.

While the effectiveness of neem insecticides is directly associated with azadirachtin content, the biological activity of many of the other compounds present in the neem tree (most of which are also triterpenoids of the limonoid group) add to its effect. Used in their natural combination, they may be helpful in mitigating the development of pesticide resistance.

The neem tree (Azadirachta indica) can reach 10–20 m (30–65 ft) in height. It has compound leaves with several pairs of leaflets and heads of 150–250 small white flowers. Photo credit: QpicImages, Alamy Stock Photos

The antifeedant activity of azadirachtin and some of the other neem compounds is through their stimulation of specific ‘deterrent’ cells on the insect mouthparts, while blocking other receptor cells that normally stimulate feeding, resulting in starvation and death of the insect. Insects vary considerably in their behavioural responses to azadirachtin. Studies on the desert locust have shown that it has a particularly high sensitivity to azadirachtin as an antifeedant, being deterred from feeding at concentrations of 0.04 parts per million. Interestingly, North American grasshoppers, including the American grasshopper (Schistocerca americana), which is in the same genus as the desert locust, are insensitive to azadirachtin at such low concentrations. 

Insects that are not deterred from feeding on azadirachtin do not die immediately, but soon stop eating due to the action of the compound on a number of physiological pathways. It interferes with moulting and growth, for example, by blocking production and release of moulting hormones, causing moulting defects, and it disrupts reproduction by reducing the number of viable eggs and live progeny. 

Plants That Kill: A Natural History of the World’s Most Poisonous Plants
By Elizabeth A. Dauncey & Sonny Larsson

This richly illustrated book provides an in-depth natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth, covering everything from the lethal effects of hemlock and deadly nightshade to the uses of such plants in medicine, ritual, and chemical warfare.

Featuring hundreds of color photos and diagrams throughout, Plants That Kill explains how certain plants evolved toxicity to deter herbivores and other threats and sheds light on their physiology and the biochemistry involved in the production of their toxins. It discusses the interactions of poisonous plants with other organisms–particularly humans—and explores the various ways plant toxins can target the normal functioning of bodily systems in mammals, from the effects of wolfsbane on the heart to toxins that cause a skin reaction when combined with the sun’s rays. This intriguing book also looks at plants that can harm you only if your exposure to them is prolonged, the ethnobotany of poisons throughout human history, and much more.

A must for experts and armchair botanists alike, Plants That Kill is the essential illustrated compendium to these deadly and intriguing plants.

  • Provides an authoritative natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth
  • Features hundreds of color illustrations throughout
  • Looks at how and why plants produce toxins
  • Describes the effects of numerous poisonous plants, from hemlock and deadly nightshade to poppies and tobacco
  • Explains poisonous plants’ evolution, survival strategies, physiology, and biochemistry
  • Discusses the uses of poisonous plants in medicine, rituals, warfare, and more

 

Insect of the Week: Synchronous Symphonies

Among all the glamorous mating rituals that have been shaped by evolution, the displays performed by certain synchronously flashing fireflies might rank as the most spectacular. For reasons we don’t yet understand, only a few lightningbugs show a remarkable behavior: thousands of male fireflies will match up their rhythms to flash together in unison. Two distinct types of synchronous flash behavior have been observed: one type involves stationary males, while the other takes place among roving (flying) fireflies.

In southeast Asia, certain Pteroptyxmale fireflies sit in communal display trees along tidal rivers, where each night they spend hours flashing together in perfect synchrony. Females fly to these stationary aggregations, known as leks, where mating occurs.

Writing in the journal Science in 1935, Hugh Smith, a naturalist living in Thailand, described these dazzling displays:

Photo credit: Radim Schreiber

Imagine a tree thirty-five to forty feet high thickly covered with small ovate leaves, apparently with a firefly on every leaf and all the fireflies flashing in perfect unison at the rate of about three times in two seconds, the tree being in complete darkness between the flashes. Imagine a dozen such trees standing close together along the river’s edge with synchronously flashing fireflies on every leaf. Imagine a tenth of a mile of riverfront with an unbroken line of Sonneratia[mangrove] trees with fireflies on every leaf flashing in synchronism, the insects on the trees at the ends of the line acting in perfect unison with those between.

 

Because fireflies congregrate so predictably in the same trees, night after night for months, native boatmen once navigated among the twisting waterways using firefly display trees as landmarks.

But stationary flash synchrony doesn’t happen in any North American fireflies. Instead, several of our lightningbug species show a kind of wave synchrony, where flashes are synchronized locally among males flying within line-of-sight of each other. In the southern Appalachians, the synchronous symphony of Photinus carolinusattracts thousands of visitors to admire these flying males as they coordinate their six-pulsed courtship flashes with those of nearby males. These fireflies create waves of synchronous flashing that moves through the forest in the Allegheny National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Similar displays of wave synchrony among roving males can be seen in mating displays of Photuris frontalis in Congaree National Park, South Carolina, Photinus knulli in Arizona, and Macrolampis palaciosi in Tlaxcala, Mexico. When they’re in a dense population, males of other fireflies will sometimes synchronize their flashes for a short time.

Wherever you find them, synchronous fireflies make an indelible impression – they are certainly one of Earth’s great natural treasures!

 

Learn more about firefly synchrony in Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies, and on the author’s firefly blog.

silent sparksSilent Sparks
The Wondrous World of Fireflies

For centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

Bird Fact Friday — The Ducks of Chile

Adapted from pages 42-44 of Birds of Chile:

The Crested Duck is widespread throughout Chile, and fairly common in the North Andes, and from Aysén to the Tierra del Fuego. They are less common from the Central Andes to Los Lagos. These ducks frequently inhabit lakes, marshes, rivers, inshore coastal water, and bogs. Males give hoarse whistles, while female make low quacks. Juvenilles have a short crest and duller eyes than adults. Interestingly, adults in the North Andes typically have orange eyes; adults in the South have reddish eyes.

Steamer Ducks, meanwhile, have had their names derived from their habit of flapping and splashing rapidly (‘steaming’) across the water. Males give trilled and whistled quacks, while females grunt. They frequently exist in pairs or small groups, with flocks typically numbering in 10s. More specifically, Flying Steamer-Ducks are mainly located in South Chile, commonly along the coasts and lowland lakes from Cape Horn to Aysén. Males have whitish heads and necks in the summer; females are smaller and browner than the males. Juveniles typically have dark gray bills, and attain adult color during their first year. Their bills are never solidly bright orange, but male bills can look plain orange at a distance.

An adult Flying Steamer-Duck – note its stout bill and rudimentary wings.

Torrent Ducks are found in the fast-flowing Andean streams and rivers, and are fairly common but often local in Arica. They are typically found in pairs or family groups, and often stand on rocks. Both sexes give rough, quacking hisses. Males found in Central or Southern Chile have orange bellies; in North Chile, they are solidly black below or with pale, grayish streaking. Females are similar throughout the range. Juvenilles have whitish faces and underparts, gray-barred flanks, and dark bills.

To see more photos of ducks from Chile, follow us on Instagram.

Birds of Chile
A Photo Guide
By Steve N. G. Howell & Fabrice Schmitt

This is the first modern-style photographic field guide to the birds of Chile, an increasingly popular destination with birders and naturalists. Compact and easy to carry, pack, and use, Birds of Chile is ideal for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike, providing everything anyone needs to identify the birds they see. Clear photographs and brief, facing-page species accounts highlight what to look for and how to quickly identify species. The photos include both close-ups and birds-in-habitat images to further aid real-life identification. An introduction and maps provide an overview of Chile’s geographic regions and their distinctive birdlife. Birds of Chile is also a great resource for birding in nearby countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

  • The first field-friendly photographic guide to the birds of Chile
  • More than 1,000 real-life photos and brief, facing-page text make bird identification easy
  • Overview and maps describe the distinct bird regions of Chile
  • Perfect for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike
  • Compact and easy to carry and pack
  • Also a great resource for birding in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru

Plants That Kill: Ephedera

Adapted from page 214 of Plants That Kill:

The drug ma huang has been one of the most important in the Chinese materia medica for millennia, having been first recorded in Shen-nung Pen-ts’ao Ching (Divine Husbandman’s Materia Medica), the earliest extant Chinese pharmacopoeia (c. ad 25–200). Today, it is sourced from four species of ephedra (Ephedra spp.), including E. sinica, which is native to northeast China, Mongolia and parts of Russia. In fact, at least two-thirds of Ephedra species from across the globe are used medicinally, and are the source of useful compounds in the fight against cold and flu symptoms. Unfortunately, however, they are also subject to abuse.

Chinese ephedra (Ephedra sinica) is a gymnosperm and close relative of conifers, including yews (Taxus spp.). The stems are photosynthetic and the fruit are fleshy cone bracts. Photo credit: WILDLIFE, Alamy Stock Photos

The small genus of Ephedra contains around 54 species within its own family, Ephedraceae, distributed in northern temperate regions of the world as well as in western South America. There is evidence that ephedra may be one of the first plants that was used medicinally, as pollen of medicinal plants, including high-climbing jointfir (E. altissima), was found in the grave of a male Neanderthal buried in Shanidar Cave, Iraq, in around 60,000 bc. Some scientists dispute the interpretation that flowers had been placed deliberately in the grave, however, as the pollen may have been introduced by burrowing rodents. 

Indisputable recorded uses of ephedra in traditional medicine systems include the treatment of asthma, hay fever and other allergies, as well as respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, emphysema, and colds and influenza. The effectiveness of ephedra in treating many of these conditions is not in doubt, but abuse of the active compounds has required their use today to be controlled. 

Ephedra species contain several alkaloids: ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, norephedrine, norpseudoephedrine (cathine), methylephedrine and methylpseudoephedrine. Levels vary tremendously between the species (the North American species Nevada ephedra (E. nevadensis) is apparently devoid of them) and also between plant parts, with the alkaloids concentrated in green stems and leaves, while fruits and roots have virtually none. 

Ephedrine and related alkaloids stimulate the nervous system by mimicking the effects of compounds naturally produced by the body that bind to and activate receptors (endogenous agonists). They are potent stimulators of receptors that are targets for adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephine), and responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response. The effects of these drugs include constriction of blood vessels (vasoconstriction), raised blood pressure, increased heart rate, expansion of bronchial tubes (bronchodilation), which makes breathing easier, and increase in energy expenditure (thermogenesis). 

The two major alkaloids found in Ephedra species, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, have been used in decongestant medicines to treat coughs, colds and sinusitis. However, these alkaloids are structurally similar to synthetic amphetamines, with ephedrine differing from methamphetamine only in a hydroxyl group, leading to the use of these medicines in the illicit manufacture of amphetamines. In response, restrictions are generally in place on the sale of products containing the alkaloids. In the United Kingdom, for example, they can legally be sold only at pharmacies, by or under the supervision of a pharmacist, with permitted levels of the alkaloids kept to a minimum if sold without a prescription. 

Restrictions also apply to the sale of the herbal ephedra drug ma huang and others, which have been marketed as ‘herbal ecstasy’. Despite these legal restrictions, the raw herb and products containing ephedra and its alkaloids are still openly sold over the Internet, posing a potential risk to consumers who are unaware of the extremely dangerous side effects.

Plants That Kill: A Natural History of the World’s Most Poisonous Plants
By Elizabeth A. Dauncey & Sonny Larsson

This richly illustrated book provides an in-depth natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth, covering everything from the lethal effects of hemlock and deadly nightshade to the uses of such plants in medicine, ritual, and chemical warfare.

Featuring hundreds of color photos and diagrams throughout, Plants That Kill explains how certain plants evolved toxicity to deter herbivores and other threats and sheds light on their physiology and the biochemistry involved in the production of their toxins. It discusses the interactions of poisonous plants with other organisms–particularly humans—and explores the various ways plant toxins can target the normal functioning of bodily systems in mammals, from the effects of wolfsbane on the heart to toxins that cause a skin reaction when combined with the sun’s rays. This intriguing book also looks at plants that can harm you only if your exposure to them is prolonged, the ethnobotany of poisons throughout human history, and much more.

A must for experts and armchair botanists alike, Plants That Kill is the essential illustrated compendium to these deadly and intriguing plants.

  • Provides an authoritative natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth
  • Features hundreds of color illustrations throughout
  • Looks at how and why plants produce toxins
  • Describes the effects of numerous poisonous plants, from hemlock and deadly nightshade to poppies and tobacco
  • Explains poisonous plants’ evolution, survival strategies, physiology, and biochemistry
  • Discusses the uses of poisonous plants in medicine, rituals, warfare, and more

 

Insect of the Week: How to Make Your Yard More Firefly-Friendly

silent sparksYour neighborhood might have hundreds of fireflies, or maybe you have just a few. Perhaps you have none at all. No matter which, here are some simple things that will help make any yard more attractive to local fireflies.

Create an inviting habitat:
Fireflies need moisture during all of their life stages (that is, eggs, larvae, pupae and the adult).

  • Let the grass grow longer in parts of your lawn to help the soil hold more moisture.
  • Juvenile fireflies spend up to two years living underground, where they feed on earthworms and snails. If you leave some leaf litter and woody debris in the corners of your yard, this will help larval fireflies—and their prey—to thrive.
  • Female fireflies lay their eggs in moist, mossy places, so preserve any wetlands, streams, or ponds in your neighborhood.

Bring back the night:
Fireflies court using bioluminenscent flashes, so artificial lights that are too bright can interfere with their ability to find mates.

  • When installing or re-thinking your outdoor lighting, use only what you need to get the job done.
  • Use shielded lighting fixtures recommended by the International Dark-Sky Association; these direct light downward, where it’s most useful. Use bulbs as low-wattage as possible to provide just the light you need for safety and security.
  • Try turning off your outdoorlights, or put them on timers, particularly during firefly season.

Reduce pesticide use:
Because juveniles fireflies spend months living underground, they will come into contact with any insecticides spread on lawns and gardens. Broad-spectrum insecticides like malathion and diazinon will kill whatever insects they contact, including fireflies.

  • Consider using organic or least-toxic practices and products on your lawn and garden. Avoid broad-spectrum insecticides – use horticultural oils or insecticidal bacteria like Bt designed to target specific pests.
  • Apply pesticides to treat specific pest problems, never routinely.
  • Don’t use Weed & Feed or similar products that contain 2,4-D, which has been shown to be toxic to earthworms and beetles like ladybugs.

As I describe in Silent Sparks, our scientific understanding of firefly biology and habitat requirements has grown exponentially over the past few decades. Such knowledge now provides a powerful tool for protecting fireflies. And of course, we can all work to preserve and restore the wild places where fireflies thrive – their fields and forests, their mangoves and meadows. We all dream about the kind of world we want our children to inherit. Let’s make certain the magical sparkle of fireflies will continue to be part of their world.

Silent Sparks
The Wondrous World of Fireflies

For centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

Bird Fact Friday – Hillstars

Adapted from page 157 of Birds of Chile:

The Andean Hilstar is found in the North Andes, and is a common resident south of Tarapacá. They frequently populate scrubby valleys, villages, and rocky slopes with scattered shrubs. They often cling to flowers when feeding, but have also been known to feed on the ground. They have bulky nests (often made of alpaca wool), which are placed under the eaves of buildings, bridges, or rock faces. Their call is a high, slurred tswic, often made in a short series. They are distinctive in their range, with a flashy white tail. Males have an emerald gorget; females are dull overall. 

A male Andean Hillstar (Oreotrochilus estella)

A male White-sided Hillstar (Oreotrochilus leucopleurus)

White-sided Hillstars are found in the central Andes, and are a fairly common breed south of Aysén. In the winter, however, they are known to move downslope to southern Antogagasta. They frequently inhabit rocky slopes, scrubby valleys, or bogs. Their habits and voices are similar to Andean Hillstars, but their range has little, if any, overlap. Males are recognizable by their broad, inky blue-black belly stripe. Females have a dark, subterminal tail band, extending across their outer feathers. 

For more photos of the Hillstars, follow Princeton Nature on Instagram

Birds of Chile
A Photo Guide
By Steve N. G. Howell & Fabrice Schmitt

This is the first modern-style photographic field guide to the birds of Chile, an increasingly popular destination with birders and naturalists. Compact and easy to carry, pack, and use, Birds of Chile is ideal for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike, providing everything anyone needs to identify the birds they see. Clear photographs and brief, facing-page species accounts highlight what to look for and how to quickly identify species. The photos include both close-ups and birds-in-habitat images to further aid real-life identification. An introduction and maps provide an overview of Chile’s geographic regions and their distinctive birdlife. Birds of Chile is also a great resource for birding in nearby countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

  • The first field-friendly photographic guide to the birds of Chile
  • More than 1,000 real-life photos and brief, facing-page text make bird identification easy
  • Overview and maps describe the distinct bird regions of Chile
  • Perfect for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike
  • Compact and easy to carry and pack
  • Also a great resource for birding in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru

 

Plants That Kill: White Snakeroot

Adapted from page 191 of Plants That Kill:

When Europeans started to settle in the Midwest region of the United States in the 1800s, they and their livestock began to fall ill. The animals developed violent trembling when they were forced to move or became agitated, and the disease became known as trembles. People who drank the milk of affected animals developed so-called milk sickness, and it is estimated that in some areas of Indiana and Ohio 25–50 per cent of the deaths of early settlers were caused by this condition. One casualty in 1818 was Nancy Hanks Lincoln, whose son, nine years old at the time, would become President Abraham Lincoln. 

Nowadays, human poisoning by white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is rare due to industrial milk production, but it is an historically interesting killer plant. Photo credit: Shutterstock, Wiert nieuman

It took some time to identify white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima, syn. Eupatorium rugosum) as the cause of trembles. Although the plant was initially suggested as the culprit in the 1830s, this was only confirmed in the early 1900s. This member of the daisy family (Asteraceae) grows in moist, shaded areas, such as along stream beds and near tree lines. Animals do not show any signs of being poisoned until they have been eating white snakeroot for one to three weeks, and symptoms finally progress to chronic degeneration of the skeletal muscles. Benzofuran ketones, including tremetone, are at least partly responsible for the toxicity of white snakeroot, and they are also found in another member of the daisy family, the rayless goldenrod (Isocoma pluriflora, syn. Haplopappus heterophyllus), which causes a similar disease in grazing animals. 

Plants That Kill: A Natural History of the World’s Most Poisonous Plants
By Elizabeth A. Dauncey & Sonny Larsson

This richly illustrated book provides an in-depth natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth, covering everything from the lethal effects of hemlock and deadly nightshade to the uses of such plants in medicine, ritual, and chemical warfare.

Featuring hundreds of color photos and diagrams throughout, Plants That Kill explains how certain plants evolved toxicity to deter herbivores and other threats and sheds light on their physiology and the biochemistry involved in the production of their toxins. It discusses the interactions of poisonous plants with other organisms–particularly humans—and explores the various ways plant toxins can target the normal functioning of bodily systems in mammals, from the effects of wolfsbane on the heart to toxins that cause a skin reaction when combined with the sun’s rays. This intriguing book also looks at plants that can harm you only if your exposure to them is prolonged, the ethnobotany of poisons throughout human history, and much more.

A must for experts and armchair botanists alike, Plants That Kill is the essential illustrated compendium to these deadly and intriguing plants.

  • Provides an authoritative natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth
  • Features hundreds of color illustrations throughout
  • Looks at how and why plants produce toxins
  • Describes the effects of numerous poisonous plants, from hemlock and deadly nightshade to poppies and tobacco
  • Explains poisonous plants’ evolution, survival strategies, physiology, and biochemistry
  • Discusses the uses of poisonous plants in medicine, rituals, warfare, and more