Bird Fact Friday — The Owls of Chile

Adapted from pages 142-143 of Birds of Chile:

The Magellanic (Lesser) Horned Owl is a very large owl with barred underparts; there are no similar species to it in Chile. They are widespread and common throughout virtually all of Chile, from the Patagonian steppe to city parks. They are mainly nocturnal, but in Patagonia can be seen in daytime, as on roadside fence posts. Their songs are two deep hoots, followed by, or run into, a quavering purr (hoo-hoo’urr-rr-rr). But, at a distance, only the hoo-hoo is audible. 

Meanwhile, the Rufous-legged Owl is mainly found in central or southern Chile, typically seen in old growth forests. They hunt at clearings and edges from low to mid-level perches, making roots and calls mainly at upper-to-mid levels. Its song is a varied series of pulsating barks run into low hoots, intensifying and then fading abruptly. These calls have a slightly maniacal quality; they’re a short series of resonant hoots (wuh-wuh wuh-wuh) followed by a rasping shriek. They are distinctive due to their rounded head, dark eyes, and voice.

A perched Magellanic Horned Owl.

The Peruvian (Pacific) Pygmy-Owl is the only pygmy-owl in northern Chile. These owls live on oasis valleys and farmland, in villages, and usually with some taller trees. They hunt from perches, low to high, including roadside wires, but are often mobbed noisily by smaller birds. They fly fast and are slightly undulating. Their song is a rapid tooting noise, almost too fast to whistle, with 10 notes/1.6-2.2 seconds (huihuihui). Their call is a high, chipping twitter. Their plumage is gray to brown overall.

Finally, the Austral Pygmy-Owl is native to central and southern Chile, commonly seen in the Tierra del Fuego, but some withdraw to the north and downslope in winter. These birds live in the woodland and forest, but can be seen in town parks, farmland, and semi-open country (at least in winter). Behaviorally, they are very similar to the Peruvian Pygmy-Owl. Their songs are fairly rapid, ringing toots, easily whistled at 10 notes/2.4-2.8 seconds, often with occasional changes in pitch and tempo (whih’whih’whih…). Their calls are high, chipping twitters. Their plumage is typically brown to rusty brown. 

To see photos of all these owls, 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

 

Katrina van Grouw: Flight of the Peacocks

A peacock’s train is not its tail! You can see its real tail, lying flat against the magnificent fan-shaped train when it’s fully spread.

There’s something missing from my living room.

I know there’s something missing because there’s over a square yard of bookcase visible that I haven’t seen for years, revealing a lot of books I’d forgotten I own. The obscuring object, shrouded in cloth wraps, has now gone, and my books have re-materialised as from behind a stage curtain.  It’s a small step back towards normality after the domestic chaos that came with The Unfeathered Bird (and became even worse with Unnatural Selection).

Although the house is, and will probably always be, full of skeletons, saying farewell to the two enormous paintings—the diptych— that was created for the jacket illustrations of The Unfeathered Bird is at least a step in the right direction. As I write, the paintings are somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean on a one-way trip to America. Their final destination: the offices of Princeton University Press, New Jersey, where they belong.

If you’re not already familiar with the book, the paintings are of a peacock; front and back view. It’s an unfeathered—well, partly unfeathered peacock. One of the most frequently-repeated untruths about birds is that a peacock’s splendid fan-shaped train, bedecked with glittering iridescent “eyes”, is its tail. It’s not. Its elongated feathers actually originate from the lower back and rump. A peacock’s tail feathers are actually very plain things, just long grey-brown feathers that you can see lying close to the back of the train when it’s fully spread. For this reason I chose to leave the train and tail feathers onthe otherwise naked skeleton.

The idea came from a specimen in the collections at Naturalis, the Natural History Museum of the Netherlands in Leiden, where Husband was formerly curator in charge of birds and mammals. It was one of a set of now rather old and tatty skeletal preparations that included some feathers left in place. This particular specimen happened to be a white peafowl, which I decided would be a good idea so as not to detract from the limited palette used in the book.

Although the Leiden specimen provided the inspiration for the paintings, its posture, like that of so many historical museum specimens, wasn’t sufficiently accurate for my needs. For that we had to prepare a fresh specimen of our own. By pure co-incidence a taxidermist friend of Husband’s, a man named Bas, had recently acquired a dead peafowl that was surplus to requirements. The story’s quite an amusing one and is worth telling:

Bas was contacted one day by a farmer asking the price of having a dead pheasant mounted. He quibbled over the price but reluctantly agreed; only to turn up not with a pheasant but with a fully-grown peacock. Any taxidermist will tell you that peafowl are a lot more difficult to prepare than pheasants. Bas quite correctly pointed out that peafowl and pheasants were not the same price, at which the irate farmer (equally correctly) pointed out that peafowl are members of the pheasant family. The two scowled at one another for a matter of minutes before the farmer, accepting defeat, flung the dead bird at Bas and stormed off, never to return!

Husband prepared its skeleton in the required posture from knowledge gained during a lifetime of studying living birds. Like virtually all the skeletons in both my books, it was boiled down on the kitchen stove, bleached and dried on the draining board, and re-assembled on the dining table. This was also the skeleton that I used for the peacock illustration in side view, inside the book. For several months the two paintings, along with a very large easel, and the skeleton, formed a little enclave; a little ‘world of peacocks,’ circling the window, as I worked on them simultaneously; blocking out the light, filling the house with the smell of paint, and allowing peacocks to dominate the living room for the first time.

Inspired in my formative years by John James Audubon’s colossal Birds of America I have the ridiculous habit of producing all my artworks life-sized (I’ve only recently grown out of this since I’ve been producing illustrations of cattle and horses). All the skeletons in The Unfeathered Bird—the storks, pelicans, swans; even the ostrich body— were drawn to this scale, which entailed wrestling with easels in spaces barely big enough for even the cat to squeeze past, and all of the pictures have had to be stored somewhere in our very, very tiny house.

The skeleton used in side view in the book doubled up as the model for the cover paintings.

While peacock skeletons may not be that big, with the feathers on and shown life-sized, they’re enormous; too big by far to hang on the walls at home, or even to take upstairs to be stored. So apart from a few outings to be hung on exhibition, they’ve been blocking access to my living room bookshelves since 2011.

The paintings were done in acrylic, with paler layers underneath the darker brown surface. I worked in pencil on top of that, and scraped away the top layer of paint for some of the highlights on the bones, and added deeper shadows in acrylic. So if you look at them closely you can see pencil lines as well as painted areas.

On the ground, at the bird’s feet is a cast feather—a homage to the 17thCentury Dutch painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter whose splendidly animated scenes of poultry, waterfowl and exotic birds were always marked by his motif of a floating feather. I put these feathers on the inside flaps of the jacket, too.

I painted the entire bird almost to the tips of its spread train, but in the end chose to crop the digitized versions significantly for the book jacket, so as not to lose the details of the skeleton. I came frighteningly close to cropping the actual paintings—cropping with a saw, I mean—too, when I was faced with the problem of transporting them to exhibitions. Thankfully I decided not to.

The paintings’ first trip was to the picture framers’ and it was very nearly disastrous. Artists have a tendency to work on borrowed time and when it came to exhibitions I was no different. I had the diptych submitted for its first exhibition almost before it was finished and rushed the paintings to the framers thoroughly encapsulated in bubble-wrap without realizing that the varnish wasn’t fully dry. I peeled off the packaging to find a pattern of circular marks all over the surface, like a magnified newspaper photo.

You know how sometimes when things are truly calamitous you just stay unnaturally calm and collected, while you might over-react at a lesser accident? Well, this was one of those moments. The framer repeated in awe how he wouldn’t have been so cool in the same circumstances, as he scurried about the workshop finding rags to soak in turpentine. Amazingly with solvents, a hairdryer, and a lotof patience we managed to restore the surface to its desired finish. 

The first aid accomplished, we set ourselves to choosing a frame. I’m usually a person who knows exactly what I want when I go to a picture framers’, but this diptych was unlike anything I’d done before. Grinning, the framer disappeared into a back room. “I always knew the right picture for this would show up sooner or later” he called above the grating of heavy objects being moved around. “You’ll either love this, or hate it.” He emerged some minutes later with a splendidly extravagant white baroque moulding, several inches thick. I loved it.

Diptych on display. The peacocks were exhibited publicly several times and looked stunning wherever they went. Here they’re at an exhibition of artworks from The Unfeathered Bird.

The paintings’ public debut was at the prestigious Society of Wildlife Artists’ annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London. After that it was the David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year exhibition at the same gallery. Then a series of solo exhibitions: at the Natural History Museum at Tring, Nature in Art, and my local museum in Buckinghamshire. They looked spectacular every time.

I had various offers of private sales, including one from a wealthy art collector in Florence, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted by the money and by the space to be regained in my living room. But it simply didn’t feel right to separate them from the context they were created in. As paintings they’re not, in fact, the best things I’ve ever done. But they’re the cover of The Unfeathered Bird—the book that dominated and changed the course of my adult life—and, for me, that makes them very special indeed.

In the idyllic world of daydreams there is a Katrina van Grouw Museum, established to preserve for posterity all the artworks from the books along with the skeletons and other specimens that were prepared exclusively for them. In that world, the peacock diptych hangs on the far wall to greet awestruck fans as they enter. “Are those the cover pictures?” they’ll whisper, “They’re so much larger than I thought they’d be”. “I can’t believe I’m finally seeing the real thing.

Sadly that world doesn’t exist and probably never will. But there was another option…

I am blessed with having a truly excellent publisher. No, I’m not just saying that because I’m writing this blog post for them. Princeton University Press has been marvellous. They’ve given me free rein to produce the books I want, trusted my every decision, and rooted for me every step of the way. They’ve shown endless patience, wild enthusiasm, and heart-warming kindness.  For a long time I wondered how I could possibly thank everyone. I could send flowers – or give some prints to individuals. But the more people I worked with, the more it seemed the entire staff was on my side. There would be bound to be someone I’d miss, and there are probably people who’ve worked on my books whose name I don’t even know.

Then it struck me that I could thank everyone, every single day, by sending my peacocks to Princeton where they’d be permanently associated with me and my books, and a permanent message of thanks to everyone who works there. Not just as a message to those directly involved, but as a symbol of generic appreciation from an author to a publisher.

Authors can be a bit surly on occasion. We work alone for years nurturing our ideas into tangible form and, at the end of it, when we’d guard our creations with our very life, we’re thrust into a team-work situation with our precious books in the middle. Perhaps unsurprisingly we can come across as rather defensive; resentful even, so I can imagine that working for a publishing company must sometimes seem a thankless task.

My peacocks are there to say that it’s not a thankless task.

If you work for Princeton University Press I hope that, as you walk past the two paintings in the foyer—and especially if you might not be having the best of days—you’ll look up at them and know that an author is grateful.

I, meanwhile—well I’ll be happily re-acquainting myself with all those books I’d forgotten I own…

 

Katrina van Grouw, author of The Unfeathered Bird and Unnatural Selection, inhabits that no-man’s-land midway between art and science. She holds degrees in fine art and natural history illustration and is a former curator of ornithological collections at a major national museum. She’s a self-taught scientist with a passion for evolutionary biology and its history.

Unnatural Selection is a stunningly illustrated book about selective breeding–the ongoing transformation of animals at the hand of man. More important, it’s a book about selective breeding on a far, far grander scale—a scale that encompasses all life on Earth. We’d call it evolution.

Suitable for the lay reader and student, as well as the more seasoned biologist, and featuring more than four hundred breathtaking illustrations of living animals, skeletons, and historical specimens, Unnatural Selection will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in natural history and the history of evolutionary thinking.

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

 

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

Bird Fact Friday– the American robin, a wood thrush & their song

Adapted from pages 2-4 of Listening to a Continent Sing:

Use this QR code to hear the American robin’s song.

A robin begins to sing, 5:34 a.m., about half an hour before sunrise. His low, sweet carols drop from above one by one, cheerily, cheer- up, cheerio, cheerily. He accelerates now, adding a single high screechy note, a hisselly, after each caroled series, but soon there will be two or more such high, exclamatory notes. He combines sequences of different caroled and hisselly notes to express all that is on his mind, sometimes even singing the two contrasting notes simultaneously with a low carol from his left voice box and a high hisselly from his right, but for now the effort of deep listening is too much like work. 

A wood thrush joins in. He awakes with sharp whit whit calls, as if a bit peeved, then gradually calms to softer bup bup notes, and soon he’s in full song. Emerging are five different half- second masterpieces of rising and falling, rich, pure notes. And the flourishes— what a pity that I cannot slow them down now and hear the pure magic in the way the thrush must hear it, with his precision breathing  through his two voice boxes producing the most extraordinary harmonies imaginable.

Use this QR code to listen to the wood thrush’s song.

The robin and thrush now travel back in time together in search of their roots, meeting up with me some hundreds of millions of years ago, when we all had the same ancestor, when we were one. We belong to an extended family, each of us an extraordinary success story, each of us with an unbroken string of successful ancestors dating back to the beginning of time. The robin, the thrush, and I are equals: “Mitakuye oyasin,” the Sioux would say as they end a prayer, “all my relations.”

The robin, the wood thrush . . . Yes, I know why I’m here. Disjointed thoughts surface with jumbled words that do no justice to the certainty of purpose . . . to celebrate life, and the lives of other creatures along the way . . . to hear this continent sing, not only the birds but also the people, flowers and trees, rocks and rivers, mountains and prairies, clouds and sky, all that is . . . to discover America all over again, from the seat of a bicycle . . .to embrace reality, leaving behind the insanity of a workplace gone amuck . . . to simply be, to strip life to its bare essentials and discover what emerges . . . and in the process, perhaps find my future . . . by listening to birds!

KroodsmaListening to a Continent Sing
Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific
By Donald Kroodsma

Join birdsong expert Donald Kroodsma on a ten-week, ten-state bicycle journey as he travels with his son from the Atlantic to the Pacific, lingering and listening to our continent sing as no one has before. On remote country roads, over terrain vast and spectacular, from dawn to dusk and sometimes through the night, you will gain a deep appreciation for the natural symphony of birdsong many of us take for granted. Come along and marvel at how expressive these creatures are as Kroodsma leads you west across nearly five thousand miles—at a leisurely pace that enables a deep listen.

Listening to a Continent Sing is also a guided tour through the history of a young nation and the geology of an ancient landscape, and an invitation to set aside the bustle of everyday life to follow one’s dreams. It is a celebration of flowers and trees, rocks and rivers, mountains and prairies, clouds and sky, headwinds and calm, and of local voices and the people you will meet along the way. It is also the story of a father and son deepening their bond as they travel the slow road together from coast to coast.

Beautifully illustrated throughout with drawings of birds and scenes and featuring QR codes that link to audio birdsong, this poignant and insightful book takes you on a travel adventure unlike any other—accompanied on every leg of your journey by birdsong.

 

Bird Fact Friday— “Tropical Chickens”

Adapted from pages 264-265 of The New Neotropical Companion:

The 56 species of chachalacas, guans, and curassows are similar in appearance to chickens and turkeys, and are in the same order, Galliformes, but are in their own family, Cracidae. They are found in dense jungle, mature forest, montane forest, and cloud forest. Though individuals and sometimes pairs or small flocks are often observed on the forest floor, small flocks are often seen perched in trees.

The 15 chachalaca species are all slender, brownish olive in color, and have long tails. Each species is about 51 cm (20 in) from beak to tail tip. A chachalaca has a chicken-like head, with a bare red throat, usually visible only at close range. Most species form flocks of up to 20 or more birds. Chachalacas are highly vocal. The Plain Chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) is among the noisiest of tropical birds. Dawn along a rain forest edge is often greeted by a host of chachalaca males, each enthusiastically calling its harsh and monotonous cha-cha- lac! The birds often remain in thick cover, even when vocalizing, but an individual may call from a bare limb, affording easy views.

A female Bare-faced Curassow (Crax fasciolata) perched in a tree. This is an example of a “Tropical Chicken.” Photo credit: John Kricher.

Twenty-five species of guans and 16 species of curassows occur in Neotropical lowland and montane forests. Larger than chachalacas—most are the size of a small, slender turkey—they have glossy, black plumage set off by varying amounts of white or rufous. Some, like the Horned Guan (Oreophasis derbianus) and the Helmeted Curassow (Pauxi pauxi), have bright red “horns” or wattles on the head and/or beak. The Blue-throated Piping-Guan (Pipile cumanensis) and the Red-throated Piping-Guan (P. cujubi) have much white about the head and wings and a patch of colorful skin on the throat. 

Guans and curassows, though quite large, can be difficult to observe well. Small flocks move within the canopy, defying you to get a satisfactory binocular view of them. Like chachalacas, guans and curassows are often vocal, especially in the early morning hours.

There are 23 species of New World quail (family Odontophoridae) in the Neotropics, but seeing them requires a lot of searching and good luck. They are generally a secretive, cryptic group, rarely giving observers a good close look, as they scurry quietly along the shaded forest interior. Most of these species have narrow ranges but a few are more widely ranging.

New Neotropical Companion CoverThe New Neotropical Companion
John Kricher
Chapter One

The New Neotropical Companion is the completely revised and expanded edition of a book that has helped thousands of people to understand the complex ecology and natural history of the most species-rich area on Earth, the American tropics. Featuring stunning color photos throughout, it is a sweeping and cutting-edge account of tropical ecology that includes not only tropical rain forests but also other ecosystems such as cloud forests, rivers, savannas, and mountains. This is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing just on species identification.

The New Neotropical Companion is a book unlike any other. Here, you will learn how to recognize distinctive ecological patterns of rain forests and other habitats and to interpret how these remarkable ecosystems function—everything is explained in clear and engaging prose free of jargon. You will also be introduced to the region’s astonishing plant and animal life.

 

Bird Fact Friday: Gulpers & Mashers

Adapted from page 163 of The New Neotropical Companion:

Birds are selective about the size of the fruits they eat and how they consume them. Species such as toucans, aracaris, and toucanets pluck fruit, juggle it in the bill, and then often reject it by dropping it. Large fruits are particularly at risk of rejection and may be found scarred by bill marks. Nathaniel Wheelwright hypothesized that plants are under strong selection pressure to produce small to medium-size fruits, as larger ones are rejected by most bird species except those with the widest gapes. Thus large fruits will tend to be selected by large birds such as curassows and guans. Large fruits permit more energy to be stored in the seeds, an advantage once dispersal and germination have occurred.

This Grayish Saltator (Saltator coerulescens) is an obvious example of a masher. Photo by John Kricher.

Studies by various researchers in Costa Rica indicated two basic methods by which birds devour fruit. Anyone can observe these methods in the field. Some birds (mashers) mash up the fruit, dropping the seeds as they do, while others (gulpers) gulp the fruit whole, subsequently either regurgitating or defecating seeds. Mashers are mostly finches and tanagers, and gulpers are toucans, trogons, and manakins. Mashers appear more sensitive to taste than gulpers, showing a distinct preference for fruits rich in sugars. Gulpers swallow fruit whole and appear taste insensitive.

New Neotropical Companion CoverThe New Neotropical Companion
John Kricher
Chapter One

The New Neotropical Companion is the completely revised and expanded edition of a book that has helped thousands of people to understand the complex ecology and natural history of the most species-rich area on Earth, the American tropics. Featuring stunning color photos throughout, it is a sweeping and cutting-edge account of tropical ecology that includes not only tropical rain forests but also other ecosystems such as cloud forests, rivers, savannas, and mountains. This is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing just on species identification.

The New Neotropical Companion is a book unlike any other. Here, you will learn how to recognize distinctive ecological patterns of rain forests and other habitats and to interpret how these remarkable ecosystems function—everything is explained in clear and engaging prose free of jargon. You will also be introduced to the region’s astonishing plant and animal life.

 

 

 

Bird Fact Friday – the Bald Eagle

Adapted from pages 94-95 of Wildlife of the Arctic

The Bald Eagle is a magnificent bird, the Nearctic equivalent of the White-tailed Eagle. Adults have a white head (the origin of the name) and white tail, but are otherwise dark brown, with a pattern of scalloping from pale feather tips. Sexes are similar. Juvenile eagles do not acquire the adult coloring until they are 3-5 years old. In early young immatures there is a significant amount of white in the plumage which aids distinguishing the birds from adult Golden Eagles. Northern birds are larger than their cousins of the souther US states, the two being considered sub-species.

This bird is piscivorous but an opportunistic feeder, taking both terrestrial and aquatic mammals (e.g. hares and muskrats) as well as birds (primarily waterfowl and gulls). They also feed on carrion and are not infrequent visitors to garbage dumps in Alaska. They hunt both by flying slowly over probable prey sites and from perches, and will pirate food from other Bald Eagles, as well as from Osprey and herons, both of which are, in general, better at fishing but cannot defend themselves against the eagles. They also makes piratical attacks on Peregrines and even on Sea Otters and Coyotes.

Bald eagles nest primarily in trees, and often re-uses nests which may actually be refurbished prior to the birds migrating as well as when they return to the breeding site. One nest known to have been used continuously over several decades grew to be almost 3m in diameter and over 3m high and weighed an estimated 2t: the tree then blew down in a storm. In areas where trees are absent, they will nest on cliffs or even on the ground provided the site is elevated to give the incubating bird good visibility. 1-3, but usually 2, eggs are laid. Asynchronous hatching means first chick hatched usually outcompetes later hatchlings which may die of starvation. 

An adult Bald Eagle at nest. Photo credit: Richard Sale & Per Michelsen.

The Bald Eagle is the emblem of the United States, which made it even sadder when numbers declined sharply as a result of subsidised shooting and the widespread use of organochlorines in the continental US. In Alaska the use of pesticides was minimal, but a bounty on eagles set in 1917 – the result of lobbying by fishermen and fox trappers – was not lifted until 1953. Although the bounty led to ill-advised slaughter, the state remained a stronghold of the species and continues to do so. Once hunting and DDT were banned the population recovered quickly: in Alaska the population increased by about 70% between the late 1960s and the late 1990s. Alaska and the Canadian province of British Columbia are the strongholds of the species with the population now probably close to the carrying capacity of the environment.

Bald Eagles breed in central and southern Alaska, including the Aleutians, and across North America, but rarely north of the timberline. In winter the birds move to the continental United States, though birds in southern Alaska are resident.

Wildlife of the Arctic
By Richard Sale & Per Michelsen

Wildlife of the Arctic is an accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to the birds, land and sea mammals, and plants and lichens of the northern polar region–including Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia. Written and illustrated by naturalists with extensive Arctic experience, this handy book features detailed facing-page descriptions of each species, including information about identification, range, distribution, and breeding and wintering grounds. A substantial introduction explains the area covered, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming. This portable, user-friendly guide is the perfect companion for birders, ecotourists, and cruise-line passengers visiting the Arctic Circle and other areas of the far north.

  • An accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to Artic wildlife
  • Features more than 800 color photos illustrating more than 250 bird species, 60 land mammals, and 30 seals and whales
  • Includes extensive facing-page species descriptions and identification information
  • Provides an overview of the Arctic region, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming
  • Explores each family of birds and mammals, and has sections covering fish, insects, plants, and lichens

Michael Brooke on Far From Land: The Mysterious Lives of Seabirds

Seabirds evoke the spirit of the earth’s wildest places. They spend large portions of their lives at sea, often far from land, and nest on beautiful and remote islands that humans rarely visit. Thanks to the development of increasingly sophisticated and miniaturized devices that can track their every movement and behavior, it is now possible to observe the mysterious lives of these remarkable creatures as never before. Far From Land takes you on a breathtaking journey around the globe to reveal where these birds actually go when they roam the sea, the tactics they employ to traverse vast tracts of ocean, the strategies they use to evade threats, and more.

What inspired you to write this book?

I like nothing more than being at a seabird colony under a sky full of whirring wings, hearing the raucous clamour of thousands of birds while the pungent smell of guano (the polite term!) oozes into my nostrils. For sure, research at such colonies, coupled with observations of seabirds from ships, has taught us much about seabirds’ lives. But the truth is that, once the birds dipped over the horizon, our knowledge of where they were and what they were doing also dipped, even plunged. This began to change around 1990 when results from the first satellite-tracking of Wandering Albatrosses was published. Then, in the last 15-20 years, knowledge of what seabirds are doing at sea has expanded amazingly thanks to solid-state electronic devices. The transformation of our knowledge of their habits has arguably been more profound than for any other group of birds. It is now possible to document where a seabird is when far from land, whether it is flying or sitting on the water. If it is on the sea, it is possible to register whether it is on the surface or underwater, and not just underwater but at what depth at what moment. It is possible to record when it opens its mouth – I should say beak – to take in food, and how big that food item is. A seabird one thousand kilometres from land can be monitored almost as intensively as a patient in hospital. My hope is to bring this astounding knowledge revolution to many, many readers who, like me, enjoy the salty tang of sea air.

Can you give us some stand-out findings that have emerged?

  • i) Murphy’s petrels, mid-sized oceanic birds nesting on South Pacific atolls, go for 20-day journeys covering up to 15,000 km, before returning to the colony to relieve the mate sitting on the egg at home.
  • ii) Male Brunnich’s Guillemots (Thick-billed Murres) may swim southward from Greenland for 3,000 km accompanied by their chick at the end of the breeding season.
  • iii) Arctic Terns, migrating south from Alaska, enjoy feeding stopovers off Oregon and Ecuador before crossing the Andes and Patagonia to reach the South Atlantic for the (northern) winter.
  • iv) Atlantic Puffins nesting in the UK use many different parts of the North Atlantic in winter, but each individual tends to have its own consistently-used ‘patch’ that is repeatedly visited year after year.
  • v) Wandering Albatrosses nesting on the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Ocean adopt different strategies when not breeding. Some linger in that region, while others repeatedly circumnavigate the globe at high latitudes. Once a bird has adopted one habit, it sticks with it for the rest of its long life, perhaps 30 or more years.
  • vi) Penguins, leaping out of the water onto sea ice, start their ascent at a greater depth, and accelerate to a faster exit speed, the higher the ice ‘cliff’ they need to clear.

I realise the book is not really about the electronic devices that have yielded so much information, but can you give us a sketch of some of the devices researchers deploy?

Yes, positional information comes from three main categories. There are devices which transmit the bird’s position to satellites overhead, devices that use the global GPS array, and light-sensitive devices called geolocators that detect the time of local sunrise and sunset. This geolocator data can be translated into a somewhat imprecise estimate of the bird’s position, an estimate that is good enough for plotting migration routes but inadequate for plotting, say, 5-hour feeding journeys from the colony.

Loggers attached to a bird’s leg can register every few seconds whether the leg is immersed in salt water and the bird swimming, or dry and the bird flying. Coupled with information about the bird’s location this can tell us when the bird is feeding, which normally means getting the feet wet!

Depth recorders combined with accelerometers which register a bird’s acceleration along three mutually perpendicular axes can yield a detailed picture of a bird’s underwater track. For example there may be spells of steady movement interspersed with abrupt wiggles which are likely moments when prey is captured, at a known depth.

What biological messages have emerged from the studies you describe in the book?

Two messages instantly spring to mind. The first is that seabird movements across the high sea are not random wanderings. For example the routes seabirds take on long-distance migrations often take advantage of prevailing winds, and indeed mirror the routes taken by sailing ships in days of yore. And, on those journeys, there may be mid-ocean ‘pit-stops’ that are used by most individuals. The existence of such mid-ocean refuelling stations was not anticipated 20 years ago. On a smaller spatial scale, birds leaving colonies to feed frequently head directly to areas where water mixing probably enhances local marine productivity and the availability of food. The birds clearly ‘know’ the whereabouts of rich pickings.

A second finding is that individual birds often have consistent habits that may differ from those of their fellows. I mentioned earlier the consistent habits of Kerguelen Wandering Albatrosses and wintering Atlantic Puffins. This pattern tells us that there may be several ways of making a living on the high seas, ways that are pretty much equally successful.

What are the remaining unknowns? What further advances do you anticipate in the next decade?

Devices are becoming ever-smaller. Even so, there remains limited information about the smallest seabirds, for example storm petrels weighing under 100 g, for which a 5 g device would be too great a burden. I am sure smaller devices will be developed that allow more tracking of these waifs but perhaps it will transpire that their habits are not fundamentally different to those of their larger cousins.

It is also likely that greater use will be made of base stations planted at colonies that can ‘interrogate’ devices attached to the colony’s seabirds. This will eliminate the need to re-catch a bird to download the information on a device; convenient for bird and researcher alike. But the old-fashioned dinosaur in me might yearn for the old days when seabird research involved clambering over slimy boulders rather than peering at a computer screen.

Michael Brooke is the Strickland Curator of Ornithology at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. He is the author of Albatrosses and Petrels across the World and the coeditor of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology, and has written widely on science and travel for outlets such as the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian.

Bird Fact Friday – the Red-throated Diver

For the next month, Bird Fact Friday will be showcasing passages and photographs from Wildlife of the Arctic, a forthcoming, pocket-sized photographic field guide to Arctic birds, mammals, and other wildlife. 

Adapted from pages 36 and 37 of the text:

A red-throated diver (Gavia stellata). Photo credit: Richard Sale & Per Michelsen.

With their delicately patterned plumage – seemingly the work of a talented painter rather than comprising individual feathers – the divers are among the most attractive of all northern birds.

The smallest of the divers and, with a red throat that develops for the breeding season, one of the most attractive. The head and remainder of the neck are pale grey. The upperparts lack the chequer-boarding of the larger divers, being grey-brown with white speckling. In winter the grey neck and red throat are lost, the back and upper wings being covered in a myriad of white speckles: looking like the Milky Way, these spots explain the Latin name – stellata – stars. The calls of the Red are also distinct from the voices of the other divers, being more waterfowl-like: in the UK’s Shetland Islands the calls led to the bird being named the ‘Rain Goose’, though to be fair, given the rainfall of northern Britain most birds could be associated with its arrival. Being smaller, Red-throated Diver can nest on smaller lakes, though this often means that the local food supply is inadequate for chick-rearing, the birds having to make a large number of flights to gather food. 

Circumpolar breeders, breeding on all the Arctic islands of Canada and Russia, though apparently absent from the New Siberian Islands. In winter the birds are seen in the North Atlantic, North Sea, Bering Sea and North Pacific.

Wildlife of the Arctic
By Richard Sale & Per Michelsen

Wildlife of the Arctic is an accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to the birds, land and sea mammals, and plants and lichens of the northern polar region–including Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia. Written and illustrated by naturalists with extensive Arctic experience, this handy book features detailed facing-page descriptions of each species, including information about identification, range, distribution, and breeding and wintering grounds. A substantial introduction explains the area covered, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming. This portable, user-friendly guide is the perfect companion for birders, ecotourists, and cruise-line passengers visiting the Arctic Circle and other areas of the far north.

  • An accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to Artic wildlife
  • Features more than 800 color photos illustrating more than 250 bird species, 60 land mammals, and 30 seals and whales
  • Includes extensive facing-page species descriptions and identification information
  • Provides an overview of the Arctic region, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming
  • Explores each family of birds and mammals, and has sections covering fish, insects, plants, and lichens

Bird Fact Friday – Emperor Penguins

Adapted from pages 174-176 of Far From Land:

Diving to any sub-surface feast necessarily poses problems. An obvious problem is that, when underwater, the bird cannot breathe and must eke out those oxygen stores with which it submerges for as long as possible. The adaptations that help the diving bird overcome this difficulty has been most extensively studied in Emperor Penguins.

Given its size, and therefore predictable rate of oxygen consumption, an Emperor Penguin could remain underwater for about five minutes if its body processes continued to function as they do when it is breathing air. This ‘limit’ is comfortably exceeded by recorded dives lasting some 20 minutes. Just as a breathless athlete striving for the finishing line builds up lactic acid, so the underwater penguin builds up lactate, principally in the muscles. This is then flushed out when it returns eventually to the surface.

Another key adaptation to diving is a reduction in heart rate underwater, exactly as also occurs in diving seals and whales. Detected via attached electrocardiogram (ECG) recorders, the heart rate of a resting Emperor Penguin is around 70 beats/minute. This value roughly doubles immediately before the dive. If the dive is short, under five minutes, the underwater rate is about the same as when resting. If the dive is long, heart rate drops off dramatically, and may reach as low as three beats/minute. Just before the penguin surfaces, the rate accelerates. It can be around 200 beats/minute when the penguin surfaces and can breathe once more to replenish its oxygen stores.

Emperor Penguins are probably the deepest-diving of all seabirds, sometimes plumbing depths in excess of 500 m in pursuit of fish and squid. Illustration by: Bruce Pearson

Remembering that even in tropical seas, the water temperature below 200 m is probably no higher than 5°C, a further physiological problem faced by seabirds underwater is potentially that of cold. Penguins and auks have tight plumage that retains air close to the skin. This assists heat retention, albeit by creating buoyancy that hinders the downward dive. The situation is different in cormorants and shags. Their plumage is notoriously wettable. Think of the classic pose of a perched cormorant hanging out its wings to dry after a spell of swimming. If the water has reached the skin, the cormorant will have lost more heat than another seabird whose skin remains dry. How they retain heat became evident when European researchers looked at the plumage more closely. All four subspecies studied, living in sub-Arctic to subtropical climes, retained an insulating air layer in their plumage, which was, however, much thinner than for other species of diving birds. Detailed examination of the plumage showed that each cormorant body feather has a loose, instantaneously wet, outer section and a highly waterproof central portion.

Far From Land
Michael Brooke
With illustrations by Bruce Pearson

Seabirds evoke the spirit of the earth’s wildest places. They spend large portions of their lives at sea, often far from land, and nest on beautiful and remote islands that humans rarely visit. Thanks to the development of increasingly sophisticated and miniaturized devices that can track their every movement and behavior, it is now possible to observe the mysterious lives of these remarkable creatures as never before. This beautifully illustrated book takes you on a breathtaking journey around the globe to reveal where these birds actually go when they roam the sea, the tactics they employ to traverse vast tracts of ocean, the strategies they use to evade threats, and more.

Michael Brooke has visited every corner of the world in his lifelong pursuit of seabirds. Here, he draws on his own experiences and insights as well as the latest cutting-edge science to shed light on the elusive seafaring lives of albatrosses, frigatebirds, cormorants, and other ocean wanderers. Where do puffins go in the winter? How deep do penguins dive? From how far away can an albatross spot a fishing vessel worth following for its next meal? Brooke addresses these and other questions in this delightful book. Along the way, he reveals that seabirds are not the aimless wind-tossed creatures they may appear to be and explains the observational innovations that are driving this exciting area of research.

Featuring illustrations by renowned artist Bruce Pearson and packed with intriguing facts, Far from Land provides an extraordinary up-close look at the activities of seabirds.

Bird Fact Friday – Radios & the New Zealand Storm-petrel

Adapted from pages 18-19 of Far From Land:

Attaching transmitting VHF radios to animals has occupied biologists since the late 1950s. It is a powerful technique for relocating, say, a troop of chimpanzees that assuredly will not have travelled far since their last known position. It is less useful for seabirds which travel far greater distances, taking them beyond the line of sight of any scientist deploying a receiving aerial on some windy clifftop. Couple this problem with the fact that a seabird will often dip into the trough below the wave crests or, even worse, submerge underwater, and the upshot is that VHF radio-telemetry has not transformed seabird research.

Believed extinct for over a century, the New Zealand Storm-petrel (Fregetta maoriana) was re-discovered in 2003. Subsequently, radio-tracked birds led scientists to a colony near Auckland. Illustrated by Bruce Pearson.

Those disparaging words notwithstanding, radio-telemetry has had its moments. In 2003, the ornithological world was amazed when the New Zealand Storm-petrel, thought extinct for over a century, was re-discovered at sea off New Zealand’s North Island. That led immediately to the question of the whereabouts of its colonies, and the tricky task of discovering those colonies. The problem was solved when it proved possible to attract the birds close to a 3.5 m inflatable with chum, the ornithologists’ term for a smelly sludge of fish bits. Once in range, the storm-petrels were captured by a small net fired over them. Fitted with  a transmitter weighing two-thirds of a gram, the released birds then led the searchers in 2013 to nesting burrows in the rainforests of Little Barrier Island, a mere 50 km from Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city.

Far From Land
Michael Brooke
With illustrations by Bruce Pearson

Seabirds evoke the spirit of the earth’s wildest places. They spend large portions of their lives at sea, often far from land, and nest on beautiful and remote islands that humans rarely visit. Thanks to the development of increasingly sophisticated and miniaturized devices that can track their every movement and behavior, it is now possible to observe the mysterious lives of these remarkable creatures as never before. This beautifully illustrated book takes you on a breathtaking journey around the globe to reveal where these birds actually go when they roam the sea, the tactics they employ to traverse vast tracts of ocean, the strategies they use to evade threats, and more.

Michael Brooke has visited every corner of the world in his lifelong pursuit of seabirds. Here, he draws on his own experiences and insights as well as the latest cutting-edge science to shed light on the elusive seafaring lives of albatrosses, frigatebirds, cormorants, and other ocean wanderers. Where do puffins go in the winter? How deep do penguins dive? From how far away can an albatross spot a fishing vessel worth following for its next meal? Brooke addresses these and other questions in this delightful book. Along the way, he reveals that seabirds are not the aimless wind-tossed creatures they may appear to be and explains the observational innovations that are driving this exciting area of research.

Featuring illustrations by renowned artist Bruce Pearson and packed with intriguing facts, Far from Land provides an extraordinary up-close look at the activities of seabirds.