Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Rites of Spring

As is typically the case, spring visited coastal South Carolina for only a few moments again this year and summer came crashing in with the subtlety of a skunk ape.  It is hot!  What better conditions for sitting down for a couple of minutes to write a long overdue entry in my blog.  A lot has happened in the last few months here at the Center.  The breeding season has been a productive one producing several species not bred before here at CBP.  We have acquired individuals from several species not represented in the collection before and the diversity of wild birds utilizing the campus has been incredible.  While I cannot possibly cover all of the excitement in one blog post, I will try to hit on a couple of the highlights.

For those of you that follow the CBP on "facebook" you likely saw some pictures from our last MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivor ship) banding session earlier this week.  While most living along the southeast coast are familiar with the painted bunting, its "monochrome" cousin the Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) is a virtual unknown despite its fantastic plumage.  This "sparrow like" (Passerina) bird can be identified by the overall dark blue color (cyanea) of the male in breeding plumage or its high pitched warble of repeated phrases "sweet-sweet, sweeter-sweeter,here-here."  Last month, I followed the call of an Indigo bunting near our amphitheater for nearly an hour without even a glimpse of the bird.  Even though I only got to see photos of the one banded in our study area, it was enough to send me back into the field with my binocs for another hour in the summer heat to hopefully catch a glimpse!  

On a more "raptorial" note, the Center acquired a Hooded Vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus)last week from the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, PA.  This is a particularly exciting acquisition as it is the only representative of the "Old World Vultures" in our collection.  The OWV's look similar and fill the same ecological niche as the New World vultures such as the turkey vulture, but they are distant evolutionary relatives at best.  We often refer to the concept of evolutionary "convergence" where two relatively distant relatives look and behave similarly due to the pressures they face in their daily "jobs."  For example, both the turkey vulture and the hooded vulture scavenge on carrion and are often picking the tiny pieces from between bones.  Consequently, they both have rather fine beaks to fit in tight places and nearly bare heads to minimize fouling from blood and guts in an area that is very difficult to clean with their beak!  From a distance they look like twins, but upon closer inspection, you can also note distinct differences.

Finally, a note on the breeding season.  While we produced several interesting non-native raptors this year, the big story again is our foster rearing Eastern Screech owls.  Our educational pair have outdone themselves again by rearing 9 chicks that ran into trouble in the wild.  One of the chicks was laid (as an egg of course) by a mother that was admitted to our medical clinic following a car collision.  Sometime during her first night, she laid an egg in her kennel in critical care.  This egg was incubated, hatched and reared by our incredibly selfless  resident EASO 1477 who has been a part of our educational collection for over 10 years!  We couldn't do it without her, that is for sure.  The above photo shows 6 of the class of 2011 EASO "orphans".

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Winter is Here: Ducks, Meadowlarks and TV Personalities are Spotted in the SC Lowcountry

Its been a busy fall.  Work culminated last weekend with our annual fundraising event which this year featured some new activities and attractions including burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) flying demonstrations, Harris Hawks on Ice (we flew our male harris hawk during the intermission of the SC Stingrays hockey game), and a visit from wildlife education legend Jungle Jack Hanna. All went very well including flying from the 18th green of Bulls Bay Golf Club which was admittedly a lot of fun despite the stresses. It was a real pleasure meeting and working with one of the legends in wildlife conservation education.  He exceeded expectations.

In the past week, we have taken every opportunity to decompress following the mad rushes and surging ulcers.  Jen needed help and we all needed mindless activities, so the Swallow Tailed Kite monitoring project mailers got labeled, stamped, folded, stuffed, mis-labeled, sealed, alphabetized to locate the mis-labeled (all 500 of them) and finally dropped in the mail.  Thats what we get for trying to help.

photo from wikipedia of  Sturnella magna 
The staff and I have also taken time to look at some birds.  We have a group of about 10 Eastern Meadowlarks (Sturnella = little starling magna = big)  foraging regularly in the short grass of our large flying field and being chased around by a male Falco sparverius that has taken up residence along the field edge.  These beautiful starling like birds can literally disappear in the grass at a moment's notice  which is helpful when being stalked by kestrels..  As with many "eastern" bird species, Sturnella magna has a "western" counterpart, Sturnella neglecta,  found west of the Mississippi river.  Apparently, J.J. Audubon chose the specific name "neglecta" to reflect the fact that it took close to a century for the western meadowlark to be recognized as a separate species by ornithologists.

Audubon's Take on the Ruddy Duck
As I am reminded from the shotgun blasts I can hear from my desk, it is also duck season. I learned to appreciate ducks from a cold, dark, wet blind early in my college years.  They were my gateway bird.  Watching a flock of mallards descend toward the puddle by inverting almost simultaneously  being in the center of a flock of 20,000 snow geese (Chen = Greek for wild goose caerulescens = Latin for becoming blue from the "blue" color of the dark morph) descending on a rice field in the Texas prairie are two experiences I can point to that led me to where I am today.  Look for the "blue" geese in the video. 

While we can't count on being surrounded by thousands of snow geese in Awendaw any time soon, we have observed five or six duck or duck like species in the ponds around the Center over the last week.  The most prevalent are the ruddy ducks (Oxyura = sharp or pointed tail jamaicensis).  Others viewing them this week referred to them as "so cute."  Those words didn't come out of my mouth.  They are cool little birds with tails pointing up at a 45 degree angle and we have tons despite all the shooting.  The male's beak changes color to a sky blue in the breeding season.  Like coots (Fulicka = Latin for coot! americana), the ruddy ducks are not strong in the "take off department" and therefore dive to avoid predatory attacks.  Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus = salt eagle leucocephalus =  white headed) love to eat them and we have had several great opportunities to watch the game unfold as it does on hundreds of ponds in South Carolina all winter.  Of course I didn't get any photos or video of the events.

I will leave you this time with some video (really poor video taken with my smart phone) of one of our newer demonstration birds.  This is a hybrid of two species of falcon found in the US.  Gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus =  Latin for a "rustic countryman") are a holarctic species (which means found in the "wholearctic") are prized for their size but not their tolerance for heat and humidity. Prairie falcons (Falco mexicanus) pursue in the open spaces in a variety of meteorological  situations including hot and humid.  Mix one part each and enjoy the combination.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A "Miner" New Addition

It has been an exciting summer here at the Center.  The spring was productive for both our breeding program and the programs of our friends and we have some new and exciting birds in our collection as a result.  Since I can't talk about them all at once (and because I have already introduced the Eagle Owl), this post will be an introduction to one of the smallest additions of the year; a hatch year female Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia).  As both the common and scientific name (cunicularia="miner" hence the EXTREMELY witty title to this post) suggest, these small owls spend a great deal of time on the ground in burrows of their own creation as well as the holes made by other ground dwellers including snakes and groundhogs.  They have remarkably long legs and are quick on their feet.

This individual owl was bred by a friend of the Center in New York State and was hand reared with her three siblings ("creche" reared.)  Ideally, this will allow us to capitalize on the benefits of a human imprinted owl for training as well as have a bird that will breed (as she knows what other burrowing owls look like having seen her siblings as well as humans.)  In this video, you can see that she clearly recognizes other burrowing owls (or rather what she believes are other owls).

With any species that we add to our educational programs and demonstrations, the first challenge is to identify behaviors that are unique or particularly interesting that can be utilized to teach.  The obvious behavior with these small owls is their fondness for tunneling.  Eventually, we will have a network of tunnels in a variety of locations for the owl to navigate, but the first step was to familiarize her with the tunnels we would use as well as the reward associated with passing through the tunnel.  Video 2 shows her cruising the tunnel.  It took less than 5 minutes to train this behavior initially and now she wants nothing more than to run through the tunnel!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Go Fly a Kite

The summertime here in Charleston brings lots of things: oppressive heat, mosquitoes, fire ants, hurricanes, tourists and beach traffic.  Fortunately, it also brings one of my favorite things as well. Kites.  This remarkable group of raptors are found all over the world and its members show some of the most incredible adaptations for spectacular flight and strange diets.   There are approximately 20 species of kites, 2 of which can be seen with regularity over the treetops in SC during the warmer months and no matter how many I see, I still get giddy like a schoolgirl whenever I spot one.

Today, for example, we were nearing the end of our morning flying demonstration with our trained Yellow-Billed Kite (Milvus migrans parasitus).  This is an African species that, while significantly larger than the native kites, is a great example of the typical kite morphology: long tapered wings and a long triangular and forked tail.  He is one of the most amazing birds to watch as he nimbly catches bits of beef thrown by the trainer often  becoming completely inverted in the process.

As often happens, some wild birds were attracted to the activity near the ground on the flying field (birds near the ground often indicate the presence of food.)  Today it was a pair of Mississippi Kites (Ictinia = Greek for Kite mississippiensis = the type specimin was collected in, you guessed it, Mississippi) who came in to check out the action.  As hard as I tried to keep my eye on the bird I was training, I kept peeking over my shoulder to see if the wild birds were demonstrating any wild acrobatic skills and in fact, they were.  I saw several stoops, and amazingly enough, only a few flaps of the wings in the 10 minutes they were overhead searching for dragonflies.  Even though I have seen it a million times, it was breathtaking.

In case you thought you had to be in the middle of nowhere to see kites, I will relate another kite encounter from earlier this week.  I was preparing to take my wife and daughter out for a morning on the water when I realized that the paddle was conspicuously missing from our  boat.  While it is well equipped with 90 horses of Japanese power, it is never a good idea to travel up the creek without the paddle, so it was off to Wal-Mart.  Something about Wal-Mart (well, lots of things about Wal-Mart) immediately puts me in a fowl state of mind.  But, since the Folly road store is mere minutes from my house and all I could think about was getting on the water quickly, that was the only option.  After nearly crashing with someone driving the wrong way in the parking lot and having to pass up 2 parking spaces due to the shopping carts carelessly left behind, I climbed out of the car prepared to go on a rampage when I heard one of my favorite sounds.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Eagle Owl Diaries

So, it is time to begin the story of the new Eagle Owl.  I have now spent 1 week watching every poop, casting, and most recently, jump.  Did I mention poop.  I will tell you about the things that come to mind as I look at the owl.  Hopefully, they will be fun to read about as well as educational at times.

Eurasian Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo  from the Latin for "horned owl")-  The largest of the world's owls according to most authorities. It depends on the criteria you choose which you would identify as the winner.  Wing chord? Height?  Body mass?  The "Eagle Owl" wins most if not all in some cases. Big owl.

The Center purchased a pair (two of them and one male one female) a few years ago from an educator in Ohio.  She was not having luck with the pair breeding as the male only seemed to vocalize at humans and the pair "fought" too much in their enclosure. Both were "social" imprints or "creche" reared birds that grew up fed by a human along side other owls.  The behavior was not surprising.  I thought that they were young enough and we gave them a shot hoping that they would mate with one another instead of spending their entire lives looking for unrequited human love.

Quick aside for an interesting "lost bird" video.  I hope it adds to your understanding of these really cool owls.

From the beginning, he vocalized at humans. I tried to train him for a season with a lot of stress and without much progress, so we decided to put the two together and watch carefully.  No fights. Excellent!  He called at Audrey and Jen McT. especially, but really would call to anyone passing by.  Not so excellent!  She stood in the corner for weeks on end.  One day, she was squatting.  Could it be?  In fact it was! An egg!   For ten days, I convinced myself that it was infertile, but a good start for the pair.  It was incredibly difficult to wait for ten days without checking for fertility.  Like knowing your Christmas presents were unwrapped in the closet but not being able to peek.

At our 10 day candling, there was positive development! There were lots of "high fives" and other celebratory gestures.  Back under mom.  Still nearly a month of incubation to go.  Mom sat as tight as any bird I have ever worked with.  I had to literally pry her off of the ledge to check the egg weekly.
Finally, after 34 days, the check revealed no egg.  In its place, a fluffy hatchling!  Shortly after hatching, I took the next image in which you can see a yellow "day old chick" as we refer to the feeder chickens we use for a portion of most birds diet as well as the fluffy white owl chick.  The "day old chicks" weigh about 30 grams on average. The owl chick looks tiny in comparison!

When we want to train an owl for educational work, we typically hand rear them from 2 weeks of age on.  If the eggs hatch in our incubator, they are often hand reared from an even earlier age of 1 day!  At one day, the Eurasian eagle owl chick weighed less than 50 grams.  As you might imagine, young birds are fragile and need constant care.  It is best to let the parents do some of the work whenever possible!

This is what it looked like the day I took it from its parents to begin its training.  "Taking" the bird from its parents sounds awful and in this case, I had trouble looking at the parents for a couple of days. I got over it as I know they will.  Knowing that a life as an educator has been pre-arranged for this individual makes it easier to understand the course of action we took.

Today is the chick's "3-week birthday" or however you want to look at it.  Current weight: 818 grams.  Hopefully, we are on the way to a full adult weight of 2000 grams or more! Thats a lot of "day old chicks!"

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Yellow billed kite video

Yellow Billed Kite from Ben Mongold on Vimeo.

Here's a cool video produced by our friend Ben Mongold.  Shows the yellow billed kite in action.  Slo mo is cool!  Plus a cool Neil Young tune. Groovy.  Enjoy

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Meet me in Zihuatanejo

I have had a busy few weeks.  With several events, trainings, trips, etc, our schedule at the Center has been packed.  When you add the beginning of the raptor breeding season, vacations and the fact that there just aren't enough days in the week for us to get everything done and have time to recharge you end up tired.  Satisfied, but tired.  I will share a few experiences from these last few weeks along with photographs from my new camera.  I hope it is educational and enjoyable.

It seems that no matter how hard I try not to, I always schedule some big program and neglect to avoid scheduling three other big programs on the weekends surrounding it.  It is not my strength.  I can however power through them after having done it for years.  Last Thursday, I spoke with over 1000 students in Beaufort County including a brand new charter school (that I was highly impressed with!) and a boys and girls club group with great leaders, and finally, a full house on Fripp Island for the Audubon Club meeting!  Beginning to end, it was a 13 hour day.  I took our marvelous black vulture, Harris' Hawk, Spectacled Owl, and Tawny Eagle.  I had help with loads and unloads from Pete Richards and some others from the Audubon Club.  Next year, plan to have an assistant.

"Meet me in Zihuatanejo"

Eggs really are the rage this time of year.  Everybody is either laying them, hunting for them, dying them, scrambling them or trying to break out of them.  Very popular.  At the Center, the eggs that are getting the most attention are those which remind me of scenes in two of my favorite movies.  Think "Shawshank Redemption" and "Raising Arizona."  Both have great jailbreak scenes concluding with some sort of rising from a pool of sewage.  Chicks hatching are not quite as wet and messy, but the scene is filled with excitement just the same. There is always the chance you won't make it.  

We breed a limited number of birds at the Center every year for education.  It is now officially the time of year when owls hatch chicks.  I was corrected by a friend at the Audubon meeting that owls don't have "babies" only people have "babies". I appreciate correctness and therefore now call the man who corrected me a friend despite having spoken to him only once.  At any rate, owl eggs started hatching last Thursday while I was away.  Things have not been easy for those trying to get out of Asian Brown Wood Owl (Strix leptogrammica) eggs over the last few attempts.  In fact, only one had made it out alive and only lived a few minutes on the outside.  Young pairs often take a few trys to get things right.  We did what we could to help, but the breakout can only be executed from the inside.  Blood vessels in the egg membranes must be gradually pinched off by the chick's beak (with egg tooth) movements.  Outside help, while well intentioned, can cause death from "external" bleeding.  Yikes.  

Several had reached the pipping stage (seen in picture above), but had failed to turn in the egg and therefore failed to break out.  The chick must rotate and chip a "belt" around the egg separating it into two halves.  We weren't sure if it was an issue of humidity or some congenital defect.  We fixed the humidity issue and were patiently awaiting this egg's pip.  36 hours went by with little rotation.  Aargh.  But he had started with 2 cracks.  He had rotated some.  A step in the right direction.  Keep going little fella.  Keep going. 

When I arrived Saturday morning, we were almost there.  Like most good escapes, the bulk of this one happened under the veil of darkness.  Just a little way to go.  Don't give up.
Saturday afternoon, I could see the egg flexing as the chick stretched its legs and wings.  I could not resist assisting at this point because I knew all of the veins had been closed.  It was only a tiny application of pressure and with a snap, the chick rolled out onto the hatching incubator's surface, mostly wet, but with a small fluffy area that had been exposed to the outside world for a day.  Notice that the egg must serve as a sewer as well as a home. I think it looks most like John Goodman covered in mud.  
The final shot is of our new Asian Brown Wood Owl chick lying on the beach in Zihuatanejo with its old friend Andy Dufresne.  Freedom is sweet.