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.

P1130094 - cropped

P1130095 - cropped

P1130096 - cropped

P1130097 - cropped

P1130098 - cropped

P1130099 - cropped

P1130100 - cropped

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.

P1130102 - cropped

P1130103 - cropped

P1130104 - cropped

P1130105 - cropped

P1130106 - cropped

P1130107 - cropped

P1130108 - cropped
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.

P1130112 - cropped

P1130113 - cropped

P1130114 - cropped

P1130115 - cropped

P1130116 - cropped

 

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.

A Visit to Central Zürich

A business trip to Zürich in early June was extended by a few days before and after to accommodate a little sight-seeing. The before-business visit consisted of 2 days in Zürich. During the first of these we walked from our hotel (Hotel Krone) downtown wandering around looking at both architecture and birds.

Here is a visual summary of some of the more interesting things that we saw:

Near the Hotel Krone in Zürich
Tramway in the middle, cars and bicycles on the outside and no place for automobiles to park on the road.

Near the Hotel Krone in Zürich

Old Building near Zürich Hauptbahnhof
Interesting old building with a tower near the train station.

Alpine Swifts over Zürich
The Alpine Swifts were quite active at this building while we were there.

Rock Pigeon

Mandarin Duck
We saw and photographed this Mandarin Duck at a distance.

Common Blackbird
The common blackbird was snacking here. Just three-and-twenty more and we could make a pie.

Chaffinch
Pretty bird with quite a strong song.

Zürich Downtown Street
The narrow streets were interesting and each seemed a little different.

Red-crested Pochard
Male Red-creasted Pochard.

Red-crested Pochard
Female Red-creasted Pochard.

Red-crested Pochard
Returning from a dip this one’s back still had a sheet of water on it.

Red-crested Pochard
A fraction of a second later and the sheet of water had broken up.

Red-crested Pochard
Another instant and the duck’s back appeared dry again.

Narrow stair-walkway between buildings
One of my favourite stair pictures for the day.

Cobblestones, Stairway and Wooden Home
Yet another ramp/stairway climbing a hill.

Cobblestone Path Between Buildings

Singing Chaffinch
This bird was singing merrily away when…

Singing Chaffinch Noticing the Audience
it spotted a small audience forming behind its back.

Common Blackbird Singing

Puzzler #7 (New and Improved): Rename that Hawk

Puzzlers were meant to be fun first and a challenge second.  I realized that all of that decoding to get to the answer in the original Puzzler #7 – A Hawk by Any Other Name… may have discouraged some.  So, here is a modified, more user friendly version of puzzler #7 with no decoding.  Instead, I split the post into 2 pages with the answers in ungarbled English on page 2.  So, without further ado, I present the new and improved puzzler #7.

In the table below there are some ‘old’ historical bird names for North American raptors that are no longer in common use and which you probably won’t find in modern bird books except perhaps as a historical aside.

In case you are not a bird nut, raptors include hawks, falcons, eagles, vultures and the like.  You may have heard of some of these ‘old’ names and know what they refer to.  I probably would have got 3 maybe 4 out of 10 had I had to solve this myself.

OLD NAME
Marsh Hawk
Pigeon Hawk
Sparrow Hawk or Sparrowhawk
Chicken Hawk or Chickenhawk
Grouse Hawk
Goose Hawk
Duck Hawk
Fish Hawk
Squirrel Hawk or Squirrelhawk
Starling Hawk

Puzzler #7 – A Hawk by Any Other Name…

Note: My original puzzler #7 required a lot of decoding to get to the answers.  I have posted a new and improved version that you might want to look at instead: Puzzler #7 (New and Improved): Rename that Hawk.

Here’s something a little different.

In the table below there are two columns.  In the left column are some ‘old’ historical bird names that are no longer in common use and which you probably won’t find in modern bird books except perhaps as a historical aside.  In the right column is the encoded answer based on the ROT13 cipher (see the Puzzlers Page for instructions).  To prevent guessing by looking at the size of the answer I have added a few extra filler word to each answer.

You may have heard of some of these.  I probably would have got 3 maybe 4 out of 10 had I had to solve this without the advantage of being the puzzler author.  Feel free to post your scores but no spoilers please unless you use ROT13 to encode them.

OLD NAME ANSWER (ROT13 ENCODED)
Marsh Hawk abegurea abgznefu uneevre
Pigeon Hawk zreyva gur zntvpvna
Sparrow Hawk grrafl nzrevpna xrfgery
Chicken Hawk nalbs pbbcre funecvr erqgnvy unjxf
Grouse Hawk abegurea yvtugf tbfunjx
Goose Hawk xjnufbt aerugeba ernq onpxjneqf
Duck Hawk ybbxfyvxr-ryivf crertevar snypba
Fish Hawk juvgr-naq-oynpx bfcerl
Squirrel Hawk sreehtvabhf Unjx benal ebhtu-yrttrq
Starling Hawk abcrohg jbhyqag gungoravpr

Here is the ROT13 table that might make decoding easier:

Puzzler Clue/Answer Decoder

Puzzler Clue/Answer Decoder: find a coded letter in the table and replace it with the letter above or below it in the same column. For instance “Hello” becomes “Uryyb”. Numbers, punctuation and symbols don’t change.

PS: If you don’t feel like manually decoding each clue just go to www.rot13.com, copy the clue into the box and click the “Cypher” button.

Ersreraprf

uggc://jjj.gbjurr.arg/uvfgbel/nepunvp.ugzy

uggc://jjj.fragvaryfbhepr.pbz/bcvavba/pbyhzavfgf/fgnss/obfnx/n-unjx-ol-nal-bgure-anzr-znl-or-n-xrfgery/negvpyr_rs45138q-n734-5340-9758-5r7n9or4q2q7.ugzy

uggc://oveqabgr.bet/fubj/ubj-oveqf-anzrf-punatr

Hiking in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park

The Anza Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California stretching from the Mexican border north some 60 miles or so more north towards Palm Springs.  We went on a day trip and saw only one piece of the entire park hiking a single trail.  Nevertheless, we did get a sense of the park despite our short stay.

We left Palm Springs fairly early. The drive to the park is straight down the 10 interstate until you reach Indio at which point you branch onto the 86 and head south.  When you arrive at the town of Salton City, you take the S22 (also known as the Borrego Salton Sea Way) west.  The road is not in fantastic shape but it gets you to the park:
P1080212

Along the way you will see a large area of the land being used by off-road vehicles. There was a fairly visible presence of both off-road ATV type vehicles and camping vehicles from cars with small trailers to monster RVs.
P1080223

Eventually the road runs into Borrego Springs which is a small town based around a large oasis in the desert.
P1080225

This following was taken from the car as we drove into town:
P1080227

Like other desert environments in the US southwest, the Colorado Desert can be characterized by its vegetation.  The Sonoran Desert is known for its giant Saguaro cactuses; the Mohave Desert for its Joshua Trees.  The Colorado Desert, sometimes considered part of the Sonoran Desert, has creosote bushes, the ocotillo – not a cactus but a deciduous desert plant – and many other plant varieties.  The Western Fan Palm, the tree found at oases throughout the region and the only native palm tree in North America, is typically found in a Colorado Desert environment.

The visitor center for the park was be partially buried – presumably to help manage the extreme heat of the summer months:
P1080231

A short interpretive walk showcased some of the key aspects of the park and the Colorado Desert. Here is a large ocotillo which is not a true cactus:
P1080230

Between the various plants growing in the desert was some pretty cool looking, colourful ground cover.
P1080236

We came planning to take one good hike and the one that was recommended was the Palm Canyon Trail with trailhead a short drive away:
P1080239

The trail starts in a dry river bed. There was a surprising amount of vegetation and a fair number of plants were flowering.
P1080242

As we climbed out of the river bed the trail wound its way through a field of rocks and boulders.
P1080248
P1080254

There is lots of vegetation from many different plants to be seen along the way including this colourful ground cover.
P1080250

After a fair hike through the rocks we came around a ridge and got our first view of the oasis.
P1080256

The 2004 Flood

In September of 2004 a rainstorm dropped a large amount of rain on the area around the Palm Canyon. The resulting flash flood ripped apart the oasis leaving only a quarter of the trees standing. The remainder were scattered around, several being washed downstream by the fast flowing water. A good account of this event and the effects on the canyon is listed in the references at the bottom of this post.

Here are some of the palm trees that were ripped out of the ground during the flash flood.
P1080259

At times, the path to the oasis was somewhat creatively constructed around the large boulders.
P1080261

Some of the biggest boulders were found as we approached the oasis. The stream of running water became more obvious as well.
P1080262

How much power was their in the flood waters? Check this out:
P1080266

Finally – the Oasis:
P1080268
P1080274

The oasis comes with a small waterfall too.
P1080276

A pond with water just down from the waterfall is covered with what looks like duckweed. I wonder how that got here?
P1080277

We started back down the trail, eventually taking a different fork to follow a different trail back to the parking lot.

In case you didn’t get the scale of the earlier picture with boulder on trunk here is a version with boulder, trunk and me.
P1080282

The running water supports lots of different types of vegetation that look like they belong in a wetter climate.
P1080285
P1080289

Event away from the stream, there were many flowering desert plants.
P1080291
P1080292

As mentioned some of the logs were moved a long way down stream. This large palm trunk was found more than half way back to the parking lot.
P1080297

And that, as they say, is a wrap – to the hike at least. We didn’t see many birds and I wasn’t able to get much on camera. There was a Shrike and a high-up hawk and a few sparrows.

We stopped in Borrego Springs for lunch and then headed back on highway 78 which runs south of the S22 towards the south end of the Salton Sea. We were off to check out the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge though I’ll leave the details of that for another post.

References, and Further Reading

The article: Anza-Borrego: Plant Guide To Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail has extensive information on the Palm Canyon Trail, its vegetation and the September 2004 flood.