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

 

Insect of the Week: Five Myths About Fireflies

silent sparksMyth #1. Fireflies are flies, and lightningbugs are bugs

Truth: They have two different nicknames, but both refer to the same group of insects. Throughout much of the southern United States they’re called lightning bugs, while in the north and east they’re more often known as fireflies. Yet these insects are neither flies nor bugs – they’re actually beetles! What makes them beetles? Their hard wing covers that fold down to protect the delicate flight wings when the insect is resting.

Myth #2. If you’ve seen one firefly, you’ve seen them all

Truth: The firefly family, known as Lampyridae, includes more than 2000 described species worldwide. Here in North America, we have more than 200 different firefly species. These include the lightningbug fireflies, which use quick, bright flashes to find mates. These are mainly found east of the Mississippi River. But more common in the western U.S. are the glow-worm fireflies, which have glowing, wingless females, as well as dark fireflies, whose adults don’t light up at all.

Myth #3. Fireflies only light up for sex

Truth: In every species within the firefly family, the larval stage is capable of producing light. Because larvae are too young to reproduce, their bioluminescence appears to serve as an anti-predator warning. Fireflies contain chemicals that are toxic to many vertebrate predators. For these nocturnal larvae, bioluminescence is similar to the bright coloration used by monarch butterflies: it shouts out “I’m toxic – stay away!”

 Myth #4. Fireflies mean summertime

Truth: The spectacular summer lightshows produced by adult lightningbugs are just the tip of the firefly life cycle. Adult fireflies fly for merely a few weeks, but can spend nearly two years living underground during their larval stage. Juvenile fireflies spend months feasting on earthworms, snails, and other soft-bodied creatures. Ferocious carnivores, firefly larvae inject victims with paralyzing neurotoxins, then secrete digestive enzymes to liquify and ingest their prey.

Myth #5. There are so many fireflies, they don’t need protection

Truth: Certain firefly species, like the Big Dipper firefly Photinus pyralis, are abundant and occur in many habitats across a wide geographic range. But others are restricted to small, isolated populations or are habitat specialists, and these are in greater need of protection. Worldwide, many firefly populations are under threat from habitat loss, light pollution, and altered rainfall patterns due to climate disruption. In addition, firefly ecotourism is gaining popularity, and increasing numbers of visitors can impact both adult and larval habitats. Within the past century, fireflies in the U.S., Japan, and China have also been commercially harvested from wild populations.

 

Sara Lewis, who has been captivated by fireflies for nearly three decades, is a professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Scientific American, and USA Today. Lewis lives with her husband in Watertown, Massachusetts.


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: the Caracaras of Chile

Adapted from page 136 of Birds of Chile:

Caracas are primal falcons of the New World that walk and run confidently, and are often social and noisy. The Chimango Caracara is common in Central Chile, and lives in open, lightly wooded country, farmland, towns and dumps. They often live in groups– sometime these groups will consist of 100s of falcons. These birds typically perch on trees and posts, but rarely on wires. They are agile and aerobatic while flying. Their calls are varied screeches, screams, and mewing noises, often in a series. Juvenile falcons lack broad, dark tail band. 

A Chimango Caracara.

Mountain Caracaras live in Northern and Central Chile, and, as their name suggests, are frequently found in the mountains. But they also inhabit bogs, lakeshore, cliffs, and even around buildings. They live in small groups, but can also be found on their own. Their flight is strong and aerobatic, at times tumbling in updrafts. Their call is a rough, bleating rattle with hissing shrieks, heard infrequently. 

Next, there is the White-throated Caracara, found in South Chile. They are uncommon in the Andes of Magallanes, north of Aysén. They inhabit lightly wooded areas and farmland. Their call is a rough, rasping rrowh and a bleating mehr, made slightly or in series. The juveniles’ call is shrieker, like a miehr

Finally, the Southern Crested Caracara is fairly common in the Tierra del Fuego, which is north of Los Lagos. They are scarce in Central Chile, and become more numerous northward, along the coast of Coquimbo. They typically live in open country, from the desert to farmland, and inhabit forest edge and clearings. They typically stay in pairs, small groups, or even on their own. They fly with  steady, strong wind-beats and short glides. They are quiet– when interacting, they make low rattles or growls. 

To see photos of all these caracaras, head to our 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: Cycads

Adapted from pages 188-189 of Plants That Kill:

The cycads are a group of slow-growing tropical and subtropical palm-like trees that have barely changed since before the time of the dinosaurs – cycad fossils date back to the Late Palaeozoic era, 290–265 million years ago. Their resistance to hurricanes and droughts is part of the reason for their continued survival to the present day. Over the centuries, humans have used cycads for food and medicine, but the toxins they contain mean they have to be processed before they are consumed. Even then, there can be long-term consequences.

Crown of the sago cycad (Cycas revoluta), with a head of developing seeds attached to small leaf-like structures, and surrounded by rigid palm-like leaves up to 1.5 m (5 ft) long. Photo credit: Shutterstock, JT888.

The sago cycad (Cycas revoluta), a member of one of the two families of cycad (Cycadaceae, the other one being Zamiaceae), is often called the ‘sago palm’ but should not be confused with the true sago palm (Metroxylon sagu) in the palm family (Arecaceae). Native to Japan, it is probably the most widely cultivated cycad. Various parts of this and other cycads are eaten by humans, usually when other crops have been destroyed by natural disasters or as a stop-gap during seasonal shortages, but also as a staple part of the traditional diet in many regions. The young leaves may be eaten as a vegetable, but it is the seeds and also the stem pith that are most often used as they, after a long detoxification process, provide a flour with a high starch content.

When Europeans first encountered cycads during their voyages of discovery, they were unaware of their toxicity. During Captain James Cook’s first voyage to Australia in 1770, the botanist Joseph Banks noticed that several crew members became violently ill after eating nuts from Cycas media, and General Jan Smuts and his troops fell foul of the breadpalm (Encephalartos longifolius, Zamiaceae) during the Boer War. In Honduras, it has been documented that the roots of camotillo (Zamia furfuracea, Zamiaceae) were used in unlawful poisonings. Improper processing of cycad plants before consumption, either as a food or traditional remedy, leaves the azoxymethanol glycosides they contain at toxic levels and is now the usual cause of acute poisoning. A second toxin, beta-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA), which is particularly concentrated in the seeds and root nodules, is not removed by the processing, but only takes effect if the plant is eaten on repeated occasions. 

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: the Darkest Fireflies

Bioluminescence lights up the larval stage in every member of this beetle family (Lampyridae), but adult fireflies have evolved remarkably diverse ways to find mates. Summertime icons that fill the night with their flashy courtship displays, the lightning bug fireflies might be the most spectacular. Yet many fireflies lose their bioluminescent spark once they become adults. These dark fireflies are active during the daytime, and females emit chemical signals to attract males. Phylogenetic evidence suggests that the common ancestor of all fireflies also had nonluminous adults. Though they are often overlooked, today these dark fireflies can be found coast-to-coast across the United States and Canada. Two groups of dark fireflies are particularly common. Once you learn to recognize them, you will see them everywhere!

A Lucidota atra firefly. Photo credit: Molly Jacobsen

Ellychnia includes a dozen or so different species with nonluminous adults. These dark fireflies are close cousins to the Photinus lightning bugs, but they have evolved a radically different lifestyle. Sometimes called Winter Fireflies, the adults spend the winter wedged down into grooves on tree trunks. They prefer trees with deeply furrowed bark, and dozens are often seen congregating on a single tree. After hunkering down for several months, surviving snow and freezing temperatures, Ellychnia adults are among the first insects to become active in the spring. Mating takes place in late March and April, when these hardy beetles can be seen flying slowly through wooded areas. Mating pairs, attached tail-to-tail, are commonly seen on tree trunks, where they remain coupled for 12 hours or more. It has been proposed that Ellychnia, which evolved from a nocturnal, Photinus-like ancestor, shifted to become day-active to escape night-time hunters like the predatory Photuris fireflies.

Lucidota atra is another day-flying, non-luminous firefly, and these adults are simply stunning. They are also easy to identify with their jet black wing covers, brightly colored head shield and flattened, saw-toothed antennae. These dark fireflies are commonly seen in early summer as they fly slowly, just a few feet above the ground, across lawns, fields, and forests. Experiments done by Jim Lloyd in the 1970s revealed that Lucidota females release pheromones that are carried on the wind, creating an invisible plume. Males seek out females by flying slowly back and forth until they encounter a plume, then fly upwind until they reach the female. The chemical nature of the female pheromone remains unknown.

 

Sara Lewis, who has been captivated by fireflies for nearly three decades, is a professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Scientific American, and USA Today. Lewis lives with her husband in Watertown, Massachusetts.

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– Screaming & Shiny Cowbirds

Adapted from page 228 of Birds of Chile:

Shiny cowbirds (Molothrus bonariensis) are fairly common in Central Chile, north of Atacama and south of Los Lagos; they are uncommon in Arica, and rare in east Aysén. They inhabit farmland, matorral, open woodland, villages, towns, and are often near livestock. They mainly live in small groups; in winter, locally in flocks of 100s. They feed on ground and lay eggs in nests of other species. Their song is a high, slightly sweet to tinny and buzzy warble, made from perch or in short flight around female. The male call has high thin seeíh, the female call is a bubbling rattle. Juveniles have a variable streaking on underparts.

Young cowbirds are raised by ‘host’ species; in this case a male Yellow-winged Blackbird feeds a juvenile Shiny Cowbird.

The Screaming Cowbird (Molothrus rufoaxillaris) was recently discovered (2010) in Central Chile. They are uncommon but apparently spreading in O’Higgins, with sightings also in Santiago. They are frequently found in farmland and matorral with hedges and trees, often in rural areas, gardens. Juvenile cowbirds travel with Austral Blackbirds, which appear to be their ‘host’ species in Chile. Their songs are variably disyllabic, and sound like an abrupt, whistled seeih! Calls are a low clucking chk and varied wet buzzes. Juvenile birds are buffy gray overall and have bright rusty wings. Immature birds have messy black patches.

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

 

Fabrice Schmitt on Birds of Chile

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.

Who is this book intended for – seasoned bird watchers, novices, or both?
Both! The idea is to have a book that’s useful to anyone interested in the identification of Chilean birds, regardless of skill level. To help beginners, there is a pictorial table of contents, which will help them quickly find the group of birds that they’re looking for. We also group together species with similar behaviours or that are found in similar habitats (for ex. swallows together with swifts) in order to help readers find the birds in the book. Finally, we did not cover rare species that are unlikely to be seen in Chile. Meanwhile, experienced birders will enjoy the book because of the images of species in their habitats, which are helpful when seeking them out, along with key ID features highlighted in pale yellow text boxes.

Can you offer some tips for identifying different kinds of birds?
Perhaps the two key questions to ask are, “What is the bird doing?” and, “Where is its  habitat?” That’s why, in our book, we decided not to present the birds in an arbitrary taxonomic order. Instead, we chose to present them in groups such as, “Walking Waterbirds” and “Aerial Landbirds.” Once you find the right group, just scan the photos for the closest match to what you have seen.

Why do you think Chile is becoming a popular destination for birders?
Chile is a beautiful and incredibly diverse country, with stunning mountains and volcanos, extensive desert and a sublime, temperate forest— the landscapes alone justify a trip! And obviously, you can find some fantastic bird species. If you want to see the charismatic Moustached Turca running between cacti, the beautiful Magellanic Woodpecker in the Patagonian forest, the sublime Diademed Sandpiper-Plover breeding in high Andean bogs, or the endangered and superb Chilean Woodstar in an oasis of the Atacama Desert, then you should plan a trip to Chile! Also, since their bird habitats are mostly open or semi-open, birding is easy there, making it a wonderful destination for birders traveling to South America for the first time.

How have your experiences as a bird tour leader with WINGS prepared you to write a field guide like this?
Bird identification is a challenging hobby, and leading birding groups helped me to realize how field guides could make it easier. For example, most field guides still present the birds following the taxonomic order, which is generally useless in the field. In our guide we preferred to place the grebes together with the ducks and coots because they are all “Swimming Waterbirds,” and not between flamingos and pigeons according to the actual (and ever-changing) taxonomy. Also, we really wanted to present the birds in their habitat so readers realize what they must look for. Leading tours to Chile for many years has also given me a good sense of the most common miss-identified species; hopefully this guide will help to make it easier!

What is your favorite bird in all of Chile, and why do you like it?
Mmm, that’s a hard one! I really like all the large tapaculos found in Chile, so let’s choose one of them: the Black-throated Huet-huet. That species lives in the beautiful Nothofagusforest in the South of Chile. As they are found in dense understory especially with bamboo, they are usually hard to see but fairly common by voice. When agitated, they call their name ‘huet-huet’ (pronounce wet-wet), and another of their vocalisation is a loud Wook! wook wook wook, wook, wook, … it sounds like they are laughing at you because you can’t see them! But with some patience (or luck), you can cross path with one of these fantastic birds!

Fabrice Schmitt is an international bird tour leader with WINGS and a lecturer on Ponant Antarctic cruises. He lived in Chile from 2005 to 2015, founded the online birding magazine La Chiricoca, and helped develop the eBird online birding tool for Chile and the rest of South America. His co-writer, Steve N. G. Howell, is an international bird tour leader with WINGS and a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences and Point Blue Conservation Science. 

Plants That Kill: Ackee

Adapted from pages 158-159 of Plants That Kill:

Although it has also been introduced to the other Caribbean islands, Central America and Florida, ackee is widely eaten only on Jamaica. In fact, it is Jamaica’s national fruit, and ackee and saltfish is the national dish. The leathery fruit are 7.5–10 cm (3–4 in) long, bright red or yellow-orange when ripe, and split open into three sections to expose three shiny black seeds, each surrounded by a large yellow or whitish aril. Only arils from ripe fruit that have naturally split open are eaten. To remove any residual toxicity, they are cleaned of all red fibre (the aril membrane) and boiled, and the water they are boiled in is discarded. Cooking unripe arils does not destroy their toxicity.

The ackee tree (Blighia sapida) has pairs of glossy leaves. Its fruit ripen to red and, when they split open, the cream arils within can be eaten after cooking.
Photo credit: Shutterstock, twiggyjamaica

Before the toxicity of ackee was understood, eating unripe arils frequently caused poisoning known as Jamaican vomiting sickness, which occurred as an annual epidemic. Symptoms included vomiting, convulsions and, frequently, also coma and death, with mortalities being more common in children, particularly those already suffering from malnutrition. The underlying cause was eventually linked to the consumption of unripe ackee arils. This results in low blood sugar levels (hypoglycaemia) through a blockade of the liver’s ability to synthesize glucose and a reduction in fatty acid metabolism (both normal routes for increasing levels of blood sugar), as well as depletion of the liver’s carbohydrate reserves. 

Poisoning is due to the presence of an amino acid derivative, hypoglycin A (2-amino-3-(methylenecyclopropyl)- propionic acid), which is also found in other plants of the soapberry family, such as lychee (Litchi chinensis). In ackee, the concentration of hypoglycin A is high in unripe arils and reduces significantly as they ripen, although low levels remain in the aril membrane. The seeds also contain the less toxic hypoglycin B (the gamma-glutamyl conjugate of hypoglycin A), with concentrations significantly increasing as the seeds ripen. 

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: the American Lady

Adapted from page 49 of Butterfly Gardening:

Some American Ladies overwinter as adults in northern climates, so sightings of this wide-ranging butterfly often begin early in spring. The actual northern limit of American Lady overwintering has not been firmly established, and questions persist regarding the life stage in which they overwinter. Some reports suggest that only adults overwinter, while others indicate that both adults and chrysalides overwinter. Additionally, American Ladies are migrants, so as the weather warms each spring, butterflies from the south move northward, laying eggs as they progress. However, one fact is clear; American Ladies are widespread and common in gardens!

This patch of Parlin’s pussytoes had only recently been planted before an American Lady stopped by to lay eggs.
Photo credit: Jan Dixon.

To the nascent butterfly watcher, American Ladies look quite similar to Painted Ladies, or in the western United States, to West Coast Ladies as well. Painted Lady, with more than 100 recorded host plants, needs no special planting plans, and West Coast Lady caterpillars accept a variety of plant, some of which are weeds, but if you wish to watch the life cycle of American Lady, you will need to provide its caterpillar food plants. These are native plants that are lovely to include in gardens—western pearly everlasting, some of the species of pussytoes, and the similar but rather unattractively named cudweed.

Pussytoes are a group of plants that are easy to incorporate into gardens or wild plantings—their cultural needs are not great, and in fact they can be used as a ground cover in dry areas with poor soil. Approximately 40 different species of pussytoes are native in the United States, although many are not commonly for sale. Native-plant nurseries usually carry at least one species, with shale barren pussytoes, rosy pussytoes, and the oddly named woman’s tobacco being fairly common.

Butterfly Gardening: The North American Butterfly Association Guide
By Jane Hurwitz

Butterfly gardening creates habitats that support butterflies, connecting us with some of the most beautiful creatures in the natural world and bringing new levels of excitement and joy to gardening. In this engaging and accessible guide, lavishly illustrated with more than two hundred color photographs and maps, accomplished butterfly gardener Jane Hurwitz presents essential information on how to choose and cultivate plants that will attract a range of butterflies to your garden and help sustain all the stages of their life cycles.

An indispensable resource for aspiring and experienced butterfly gardeners alike, Butterfly Gardening is the most gardener-friendly source on the subject, covering all the practical details needed to create a vibrant garden habitat that fosters butterflies. It tells you which plants support which butterflies, depending on where you live; it describes what different butterflies require in the garden over the course of their lives; and it shows you how to become a butterfly watcher as well as a butterfly gardener.

While predominantly recommending regionally native plants, the book includes information on non-native plants. It also features informative interviews with experienced butterfly gardeners from across the United States. These gardeners share a wealth of information on plants and practices to draw butterflies to all kinds of gardens–from small suburban gardens to community plots and larger expanses.

Whether you are a gardener who wants to see more butterflies in your garden, a butterfly enthusiast who wants to bring that passion to the garden, or someone who simply wants to make their garden or yard friendlier to Monarchs or other butterflies, this is a must-have guide.

  • An essential guide for aspiring and experienced butterfly gardeners
  • Encourages readers to rethink gardening choices to support butterflies and other pollinators in their gardens and communities
  • Introduces gardeners to butterfly watching
  • Includes regional lists of plant species that are time-proven to help sustain butterflies and their caterpillars
  • Features informative interviews with expert butterfly gardeners from across the United States

 

 

Mark Serreze: The Value of Climate Science

 

Modern climate science is based on facts, physics and testable hypotheses. There is ample room for debate about what to do about climate change, but the underlying science is rock solid.

Modern climate science builds on a long track record of scientific inquiry on environmental and health issues that has benefited society. Through scientific analysis, it was discovered that DDT, widely used as a pesticide, was becoming concentrated in the food chain. As a result, laws were passed to curb its use. Tetraethyl lead was once added to gasoline to reduce engine knock. Through science, we learned that lead in the environment poses severe health hazards, so the use of lead in gasoline was consequently phased out. It was through science that we learned how CFCs were destroying stratosphere ozone. In turn, through many decades of research, we have developed a strong understanding of how the climate system works, how humans are affecting climate, and what is in store if society continues to follow its current path without taking corrective action.

Until the middle off the 20th century, climate science was pretty much a backwater. Climatologists, by and large, were bookkeepers, compiling records of temperature, precipitation and other variables. From these records, much effort was spent classifying climate types around the world, ranging from tropical rain forests to monsoons to semiarid steppes to deserts. Climate data certainly had value to farmers and the home gardener, civil and structural engineers and the military planning. But the focus was largely on statistics, with relatively little emphasis on climate dynamics – the processes that control the climate system and how it may evolve. There were notable exceptions, such as Svante Arrhenius, who, in the late 19th century, speculated on how rising concentrations of carbon dioxide would lead to warming, but for the most part, climatology was a largely descriptive and rather boring field of science.

The shift from simple bookkeeping to a more physically-based view of how the climate system works paralleled developments in meteorology—the science of weather prediction. The rapid advances in meteorology following the Second World War, in turn, largely paralleled the development of numerical computers. With computers, it became possible to translate the physical processes controlling weather systems into computer code. It was readily understood that the physics controlling weather were part of the broader set of physics that control climate, which led to the development of global climate models, or GCMs for short. GCMs were quickly seen as powerful tools to understand not just how the global climate system works, but how climate could change in response to things like brightening the sun or altering the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Using early generation GCMs developed in the 1970, pioneers like Jim Hansen of NASA, and Suki Manabe of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton confidently predicted that our planet was going to warm up, and that the Arctic would warm up the most, something that we now call Arctic amplification. But the more mundane chore of compiling climate records never stopped, and indeed, its value grew, for it was only with ever-lengthening climate records that it could be determined if things were actually changing. And as these records grew, it slowly became clear that the planet was indeed warming. From numerous GCM experiments, it also became clear that this warming, and all the things that go with it, such as the Arctic’s shrinking sea ice cover and Artic amplification, could only be explained as a response to rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Climate scientists of today need to know:

  • The processes that can change how the earth absorbs and emits energy
  • How the atmosphere and weather systems work
  • How the atmosphere interacts with the oceans
  • How the atmosphere interacts with the land surface
  • And how the land interactions with the ocean.

But whatever our area of specialty, we all try and make contributions to our understanding, but those contributions are, to the best of our ability, based on facts, physics, and sound methodology. In science, there is no room for wishful thinking. As a society, need to get past partisan bickering, step back, and listen to what climate science is telling us: the climate is changing, we know why, and the implications must not be ignored. This is the value of climate science.

Mark C. Serreze is director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, professor of geography, and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the coauthor of The Arctic Climate System. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.