Gulls Eating Sea Stars

Back in August of this year, the 14th to be exact, I was walking along the waterfront in Sidney, BC when I caught a gull red-handed (or red-billed) trying to swallow a sea star. Here’s the sequence of 4 pictures that I took over a half-minute or so:

Gull Eating Sea Star 1 of 4 - P1170385 Gull Eating Sea Star 2 of 4 - P1170386

Gull Eating Sea Star 3 of 4 - P1170387 Gull Eating Sea Star 4 of 4 - P1170388

The gull does not seem to be having a lot of success.

Then, I was looking through some older images yesterday and found another sequence of 4 images taken in March 2016 at Neck Point Park in Nanaimo:

Gull Swallowing Sea Star 1 of 4

Gull Swallowing Sea Star 2 of 4 Gull Swallowing Sea Star 3 of 4

Gull Swallowing Sea Star 4 of 4

The first image shows the gull with the sea star in its mouth. The following three images show the gull swallowing the sea star. It had to extend its neck which, as you can see by the white spot on the rocks appearing in the third image, triggered a ‘movement’.

Unexpected Finds at Buttertubs Marsh

I was birding Buttertub Marsh with a friend last Thursday (November 17, 2016). We were scanning the almost empty pond for waterfowl when Leonel noticed 4 Great Fronted Geese hanging out with some Canada Geese at the far side of the pond. It was the first time that I had seen them there.

Here’s a picture captured with my Panasonic FZ-200 at maximum zoom. It’s cropped as well. You can also see a bird in front just to the right of centre with a neck-band as well. I’ll say more on this guy later.

GWFG at Buttertub Marsh

Four Greater White-fronted geese mixed with some Canada Geese at Buttertub Marsh on November 17, 2016.

About and hour and a half later we were just about done and noticed the Canada Geese swimming more in the middle of the pond without the GWFG. It was Leonel’s good eyes and my FZ-200 to the rescue a second time. The 4 geese were across the pond on the edge of the pond resting, their coloration blending in well with the background reeds.

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VIU Canada Goose Project

I said that I’d come back to that Canada Goose with a neck band in the first picture.

A group from VIU, headed by student Stew Pearce, banded 200 Canada Geese earlier this year and has been following the locations where they have been seen since using information sent in by birders or anyone else interested in helping out. The goal is to learn how the birds move about during the year. You can find out more by going to the VIU Canada Goose Project web-site.

Stew told me recently that geese from the project have been seen and reported from as far away as Portland, Oregon. So, if you happen to see a Canada Goose with a neck band let Stew know using the instructions at the above link.

So, did I figure out what the ID of our find was? Yup! We saw the bird swimming behind some reeds an hour or so after our first encounter and I took a some pictures as the goose swam in and out of view. One of the four was clear enough to ID the goose:

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Our goose’s ID was “096P”. I checked the web-site and discovered that the most recent sighting was November 6 at Buttertubs Marsh. I’m guessing that this guy is not going South this winter.

 

Watching Coot-Looting Wigeons at Buttertubs Marsh

I sometimes wonder why I don’t get bored going to the same birding locations month after month, year after year.  A big part of it is that, on any given day, there is a chance that they will see something different or rare or perhaps even totally new.

This past Sunday, while on an organized outing with a bunch of local birders to Buttertubs Marsh Bird Sanctuary in Nanaimo, I got my “something-new” fix.  In this case is wasn’t a new species of bird — instead it was an inter-species interaction that I had never noticed before – that of an American Wigeon stealing food from an American Coot.

Scene 1: Following the Coot

Coot (Fulica americana) & American Wigeon (Anas americana)

The first of the two species, the American Wigeon (Anas americana), is a duck that is part of the genus Anas sometimes referred to as dabbling ducks.  These duck may feed on land or on the water where they can tip themselves upside down and gather underwater plants up to several inches below the surface.

The second of the two species, the American Coot (Fulica americana), is in the family Rallidae of rails and looks a little like a small black chicken.  These birds may feed on land, by dabbling in shallow water or by diving for plants.

I captured a short video of the food stealing behaviour (kleptoparasitism) with my Panasonic DMC FZ-200 camera.  I may have had too much fun and gotten a little carried away with the presentation.  You be the judge:

At one point there were at least 3 or 4 Wigeon-Coot pairs doing similar food-stealing dances.

On another occasion I watched as a Wigeon tried to manage two Coots at the same time and seemed to spend a lot of time in the middle trying to decide which way to go.  Not a good strategy for a low-intelligence bird it would seem.

Some further comments and other notes resulting from forays into online ‘research’:

  • A 1979 article suggested that the Wigeon is the only duck known to be a regular kleptoparasite (ref [3]).
  • A 1984 article documents Gadwalls stealing food from American Coots (ref [4]).
  • Other ‘dabbling ducks’ in the genus Anas include the Mallard, Wigeons, Teals, Shovelers, Pintails, the Black Duck, the Gadwall and a few others.
  • Wigeons apparently will try to steal food from other diving water birds, not just from coots.
  • Coots, in turn, have been known to steal food from other water birds.
  • Coots will also dive to escape predators (the Coot is one of the easiest birds for the Bald Eagle to catch).

References

A good source of information that I like to use is the Birds of North America online service from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  The service is not free but for anyone curious about bird behaviour it’s worth the price in my opinion.  They have a one month subscription that costs $5 if you want to give it a try.

[1] BNA online article on the American Wigeon.

[2] BNA online article on the American Coot.

[3] H. Jane Brockmann & C. J. Barnard,  Kleptoparasitism in birds, Animal Behaviour Research Group, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, UK
Animal Behaviour (Impact Factor: 3.14). 05/1979; 27:487-514. DOI: 10.1016/0003-3472(79)90185-4

[4] Juan A. Amat & Ramón C. Soriguer, Kleptoparasitism of Coots by Gadwalls, Ornis Scandinavica 15: 188-194.  Copenhagen 1984.

Post Election Birding in Nanaimo

I made my first post-election birding trip yesterday.  A friend, who I’ll refer to by his initials LR, and I set our Nanaimo itinerary to take us on a loop including Neck Point, Pipers Lagoon, the Nanaimo River Estuary and Buttertub Marsh.

We should have known better as we only made it to Neck Point and Pipers Lagoon spending more than two hours at those two sites.  We did add the Linley Valley Drive Wetlands which is walking distance from our house.

As usual, I had both camera and binoculars at hand.  Birding was enjoyable and I did get a couple of nice pictures that I’ll share.

Neck Point

We arrived at Neck Point and had barely got out of the car when the buzzing (for an example play this recording of a Bewick’s Wren on Xeno-Canto) of a Bewick’s Wren was heard.  There was actually a pair flitting around near the parking lot and they were surprisingly unafraid bopping around in plain site.  Here is one checking me out:

Bewick's Wren at Neck Point, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

Bewick’s Wren at Neck Point, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

Note that I rely heavily on the auto-focus feature of my camera (Panasonic FZ-200).  When taking of pictures of fast moving birds, especially when they are in bushes the auto-focus does not always behave.  Here is an example:

Camera misfocus on Bewick's Wren.

Camera misfocus on Bewick’s Wren.

Apparently the camera liked the road-side pebbles better.

We saw a total of 14 species at Neck Point (eBird checklist)

Pipers Lagoon

Pipers lagoon was more productive producing a total of 23 species (eBird checklist).  The picture bird, a male Hairy Woodpecker,  was again located first by sound (here’s a recording of a Hairy Woodpecker on Xeno-Canto).  Here’s a picture that shows the long bill (compare with the shorter bill of its smaller look-alike cousin the Downy Woodpecker):

Hairy Woodpecker, Pipers Lagoon, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

Hairy Woodpecker, Pipers Lagoon, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

The final picture, while not of the highest quality because it was taken at full zoom, proved to be useful for the identification of a pair of gulls sitting on a small rock offshore.  The yellowish legs and plumage suggested a California or a Mew gull.  Studying the picture later suggested that it was a Mew Gull.  Check it out for yourself:

Mew Gulls at Pipers Lagoon, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

Mew Gulls at Pipers Lagoon, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

Linley Valley Dr Wetlands

A two minute walk from my house is a small wetlands  surrounded by housing developments in various stages of completion.  We spent about a half hour walking the path that runs along one side of the pond and saw some interesting birds (5 new species for the day) including a Hooded Merganser pair, Ring-necked Ducks, a Fox Sparrow, Chestnut-sided Chickadees (surprisingly not seen at the other two locations) and a Pied-billed Grebe.  The site total was 12 species (eBird checklist)

 

I’m Back

I haven’t posted here in quite a while – about a year in fact.  Here are my excuses:

  1. I have a habit of writing long, researched works that can take weeks to finish.
  2. I have a secret longtime desire to try my hand at writing fiction that I finally decided to act upon.
  3. I got caught up in the Canadian federal election campaign as a Green Party volunteer.
  4. I have been spending too much time on FaceBook where it is all to easy to just share-and-comment rather than create original content.

I’m going to (try to) write some fiction…

As part of my interest in writing fiction attended the Surrey International Writer’s Conference (SIWC) this past weekend.  On the subject of becoming a published writer, one recommendation that I received more than once was that I need to have an active online presence in the social media (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc).  Obviously the social media and the fiction should share the same field/genre.

The content that I publish in social media would, I was told, help define my brand.

I can do that.

But, what is my field/genre.  The best description that I can come up with is:  Speculative (science) fiction influenced by global social and environmental issues.

PonderTerra, my other main WordPress blog, should nicely fit this target field/genre.

Another recommendation that received more than once was that it is better to write lots of small, regular posts rather than an occasional long ones.  Oops!  Guilty!  I clearly need to improve in this department on all my blogs.

So prepare to see more regular posts here and on PonderTerra.  And if the fiction writing goes well, look for updates in both blogs as well.

KHH

Hawaiian Sea Turtles Up Close and Personal

On our last day in Hawaii we negotiated a late checkout (noon) but still had many hours to kill until our red-eye left just before midnight.  One of the things that we had not yet done was see some Sea Turtles so, after a little research, we visited the Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park which is about 2 miles (3 kilometres) south of the Kona International Airport.  We went into the main area just off of the Queen Kaahumanu Highway but when we said that we were looking for turtles they sent us out to the main highway to enter at the South edge of the park along a road called the Kealakehe Parkway.  Eventually you turn right off of this road in the direction of the Honokohau Beach.

When we got there it only took a few seconds to find some Green Sea Turtles as they were within feet of the shoreline foraging.  It didn’t hurt that there was another person wading only inches from one of the turtles taking pictures.  The turtles did not seem to mind our presence which made taking their picture quite easy.  The hardest part was being ready when they raised their head out of the water for a few seconds every few minutes.

The following three pictures show some different views of the turtles.  The first shows an entire turtle (they are about 3 feet long) at the water’s surface looking for food on the bottom.  The second shows a turtle with head up.  The camera was zoomed in so that only the front half is visible.  Finally, the third turtle was photographed with its head up as well but this time the camera was zoomed in such that the head almost fills the image.

P1130236 - Green Sea Turtle Foraging

P1130259 - Green Sea Turtle Taking a Breath

P1130279 - Green Sea Turtle Up Close

Note that the bottom 2 images were cropped to have an aspect ratio of 1.6 which is common to many computer displays. As a result, both of them make for a pretty cool desktop background or wallpaper!

Enjoy!

Watching a Family of Palila on the Big Island

[Updated December 10 2014 based on feedback.  Additional links on the Palila have been added.]

A recent week-long vacation took us to the Hawaiian Islands (October 26 to November 1). Having previously been to the island of Kauai at the old end of the island chain, we decided to try the island of Hawaii at the other, newer end.  To prevent confusion with the state of Hawaii this is frequently referred to simply as the Big Island.  I had my Panasonic FZ-200 camera along to document the trip.

On the last full day, I signed up for a Rainforest and Dryforest Birding Adventure tour — a day-long outing put on by a tour group called Hawaii Forest and Trail.  They do many other tours too that are not just for birding.  The rest of our group, for instance, went on the Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Adventure trip which takes you up to the volcano’s summit to watch a sunset.

Our trip set out in search of 2 specific target birds.  In the dry forests on the side of Mauna Kea we would be looking for the Palila, a critically endangered species which lives in a single forested area on the volcano’s slopes.  This forested area is the source of the māmane plant which the Palila has adapted to be able to eat and which is toxic to other birds.

In the second part of our excursion, we would travel to some wetter forests where we hoped to find different endemic, the ʻAkiapōlāʻau.

While we were, unfortunately, unable to track down the ʻAkiapōlāʻau, we were extremely successful with the Palila and the rest of this article describes that encounter.

Mauna Kea and the Palila

First, a quick note and the Palila habitat on the slopes of Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea is still considered to be an active, though dormant, volcano and even though it has not erupted in 4600 years there is still the slim possibility that a lava flow from a future eruption could wipe out this habitat leading to their extinction.  While this might make for a good story in Hollywood, the reality is that there are much more dangerous risks that could well see the Palila gone from these slopes long before they are touched by lava.  Forest fires, for instance could, in the right conditions, very quickly destroy the Palila habitat.  Other threats include introduced species of plants, animals, insects and disease.  The Hawaiian government’s Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project has lots of good information here.  Finally, according to BirdLife International, the endangered status of the Palila in recent years is also related to rapid population declines as a result of drought that has affected its primary source of food, the māmane plant.

The Palila Plan

The plan was simple.  We parked in an area accessed by a hunter access road on the lower slopes of Mauna Kea.  The trip organizers allowed for up to 4 hours climbing the slopes to find and view the Palila after which time, win or lose, we would head for the second location.

Here is a picture taken near our parking spot and at the lower edge of the area expected to contain the Palila.  Note the sparse trees on fairly open grassland.Mauna Kea slope forest home of the Palila

Here is a second shot taken as we climbed a little further up the Mauna Kea slope.Mauna Kea slope Forest Home to the Palila

Found:  A Family of Palila

According to the guide, on one recent trip they spent most of the allocated time hunting for the Palila and only found them as they were about to quit and move on.  We got lucky and found one after about 15 minutes with another pair showing up shortly thereafter.  In fact it appears that we had found a family unit with male, female and juvenile foraging together.  The juvenile showed typical begging behaviour with fluttering wings and an adult was doing the foraging and feeding of the juvenile though regurgitation as described, for instance, in a Palila wikipedia article.  This article says that both adults will regurgitate to feed the young in our case the male was feeding while the female stood guard, presumably looking for predators.  If the wikipedia article is correct then perhaps they take turns feeding and guarding or perhaps the guarding behaviour only happens occasionally, for instance when a large number of two-legged, orange-vested homo sapiens are also foraging in the area.

If we only consider predators seen historically before the arrival of man on the islands the most likely candidates would probably have been the Hawaiian Short-eared Owl (Pueo) and the Hawaiian Hawk (ʻIo).  It is not clear what threat we birders posed to the Palila though it was clearly not enough to drive them away.  Whether or not the female would have stood guard where and when she did if we had not be there is unclear.

As mentioned earlier, introduced predators are currently one of the Palila’s biggest threats.  These include feral cats and black rats (see for instance this article on the Palila from BirdLife International (birdlife.org).  Mosquitos transmitting avian malaria have also proved very dangerous to the endemic populations of birds.  They are also threatened by habitat degradation especially if it affects the growth and spreading of their primary food sources, the peas from the seed pods of the māmane plant and certain types of caterpillar.  Introduced mammals such as sheep and pigs are particularly bad for disturbing the forest plants.  Through hunting and fencing the threat of these has been reduced.

First Sighting: An adult male processing a māmane pod.

Our first sighting of a Palila was that of an adult male who was processing a māmane pod in the middle of a bush that provided the bird with some protection.  The following 7 pictures, shown in the order that they were taken, cover a period of about 9 seconds.  All of these pictures were cropped from the original size of 4000 x 3000 down to about 1200 x 800.  The displayed images below are shown at a resolution of 640 x 400 though the full-sized cropped images can be viewed clicking on the image and following the link back to Flickr.

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Video of the Male Foraging

The following is a short video that was taken starting 10 seconds after the last picture (above) was taken.  You can hear the group leader describing the bird to some of the birders that were just then discovering it for the first time.  Initially you can see the Palila alternating between working on the māmane pod and raising it’s head up to check its surroundings.

You can also hear the Palila in between the periods where it is working on the māmane pod and also after it appears to be done having released the māmane pod.  Perhaps these calls were communications to the other family members that would be showing up in the seconds that followed the video.  There may even have been a specific message to the juvenile that he (the adult male) was full and that it was time to eat.  This might also explain why he dropped the pod.  It’s not clear why they moved to a different location for the feeding.  Perhaps it was because of our presence or perhaps because it is generally safer to keep moving.

Unfortunately there is a half minute gap between this series of pictures and the next series with adult feeding juvenile.  The only thing that I recall from this period is that the juvenile and adult female arrived to join the adult male and then the female left again.

Second Sighting:  A juvenile begging and being fed by the adult male.

The second set of 7 images were taken over a period of 13 seconds starting 63 seconds after the last picture in the first set or about 38 seconds after the end of the short video.  As mentioned, in these 38 missing seconds the male moved to a different perch and a juvenile and an adult female flew in to join the adult male.  Only the juvenile stayed to be fed by the adult male while the female flew off to, it appears, stand guard (see the third sighting section below).

The sequence between the adult male and the juvenile clearly shows the begging behaviour as well as the regurgitation and transfer of food from adult to juvenile.

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The final image was taken 5 seconds after the previous one and shows the juvenile left alone and somewhat hidden in the foliage while the adult male had moved on, perhaps to start a new cycle of processing māmane pods prior to the next feeding cycle at which point he would call the juvenile to join him there.

Third Sighting: An adult female on guard duty.

The third set of 5 pictures were taken over a period of 24 seconds starting 18 seconds after the last image in the second set.

The adult female Palila, which made a brief appearance off camera took up a position 100 feet or so from where the other two birds were positioned.  Her perch at the top of a bare branch gave her good visibility. She chose a bush that kept all of the birders, which had broken into several groups by this time, on one side of her, perhaps in order to be able to see all of them at once without continually having to look in opposite directions.  As the photos show, she still does look away from time to time, perhaps scanning for other possible threats.  As mentioned previously, the two historic threats where probably the Hawaiian Short-eared Owl (Pueo) and the Hawaiian Hawk (‘Io).  At this point in our trip we had already seen 5 of these owls hunting (one near where we found the Palila) and we had one unconfirmed hawk sighting.

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I was impressed by the fact that both adult Palilas were caring for what was clearly a juvenile bird.  The splitting of the task of feeing the young was split into roles of foraging and standing guard.  It would have been nice to know if they switched roles from time to time.  Many species, particularly migratory ones, leave their young to fend for themselves at a much younger age or only one of the adults take responsibility for the young.

 Final Thoughts

I acquired my Panasonic FZ-200 camera to help with bird identification but on several occasions it has proven useful in seeing behaviours that I would never have noticed using just binoculars.  The ability to capture large numbers of pictures and even videos with sound provides the opportunity to analyze different aspects of bird sightings that happen too quickly in the field.

It would seem that my camera is rapidly replacing my binoculars as my primary birding equipment.  Here are some things that I might change in the future that might lead to better results:

  • Take more pictures and make more use of burst mode.  You can always delete them later.
  • Take more video clips.  Images can be extracted from these videos though not with the same resolution.  Video also records sound which can be useful in understanding bird behaviour.
  • Bring a tripod.  A remote control cable might be useful as well for the still shots.
  • Make sure that the memory card is fast and has lots of space.  Bringing extra fast cards will encourage taking lots of pictures and videos.
  • Add a directional microphone that plugs into the audio in jack on the camera.
  • Get more people involved.  It would be interesting to see if better behaviour could be captured with a coordinated group of birders taking pictures and videos together.  The camera clocks would obviously need to be either calibrated or synchronized to help determine the order of various events.

It was a fun way to get introduced to a new bird and, while it took a lot of time post-processing, it was definitely more satisfying than a brief sighting and a simple pencil mark on a checklist.

For More on the Palila Check Out the Following Links

The Palila article on Wikipedia.

The Palila Status at BirdLife International (birdlife.org).

The Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project website from the Hawaiian state government has much more detailed and accurate information on current status and threats to the Palila.

The Facebook page for “A Paradise Lost”, an animated movie about the Palila directed by Laurie Sumiye.