Sunday, April 29, 2007

My first Crested Gecko eggs

I was delighted to find my first clutch of Crested Gecko (Rhacodactylus ciliatus) eggs, after waiting for nearly 2 months for my two pairs to get going. These are from Atticora x Wren. Likely not fertile, but I'll incubate them until they prove me wrong.

Wren and Atticora wasted no time getting in on:

Here's one of my males, Jiminy (not the sire of the above eggs) being all fired up today:

Herping Pics

Went out to the local pond spot and was very disappointed to hear only peepers, and a few leopard frogs.

The night chorus:

Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens)
Check out those nuptial pads!

Green Frog (Rana clamitans)
Compared with the leopard:

Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)

A photo of the marsh, at 8 second exposure w/ a flash. It froze Taylor, but not Eric in the background.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Update from Africa

I received an email update today from a friend, Mike Harvey, studying abroad in South Africa this semester. Check out his excellent photography and some awesome African birds and wildlife:

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Native news

More reflections on Virginia Tech, with a Native perspective, here

How much does modern football owe to Indians? Find out here. That team even includes some Tuscarora.

NYTimes article on sexual assault against Indians here

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Reflections on the Virginia Tech shootings

Not mine, but another blog post here. Good reading... quite different than the drivel the media has been spewing out.

Herp of the Day: Chrysopelea

Check out this awesome site for information on the Colubrid genus Chrysopelea, the Flying Snakes. In particular, the movies of the gliding behavior and the pictures.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Bird Migration on radar

We've been socked pretty good these past few weeks by very cold temps, culminating in that nasty Nor'Easter at the beginning of this past week. Here in Ithaca it dumped nearly a foot of snow in the hills, although the valleys saw no accumulation. Now, several days later, the snow is all but gone again, the sun is shining, and the birds are itching to move.

It's been a very weird spring. We had excellent weather in March, with strong movements of waterfowl (which normally are the first group to migrate) through the Cayuga Lake Basin. At peak, there was over 100,000 waterfowl on Cayuga Lake and the area of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex known as the Mucklands at the north end of the lake, possibly totalling 150,000. The numbers were staggering. There was also a decent push of early hawks through the region, and some of the early migrants (Phoebe, blackbirds, etc.) arrived. Then the cold hit, and very little new birds trickled in. Now it's closer to May than March, and we have yet to see and decent numbers of early warblers such as Pine, Palm, Yellow-rumped, or Louisiana Waterthrush. That's going to change shortly.

Here's a few images pulled from regional radars tonight on They show strong migration erupting just after dark, although it is not anywhere close to what it can be at peak times.

This one is the coolest... swarms of birds moving in over the Gulf. I did check the current conditions in Houston - this isn't rain.

To give you the idea of directionality, I downloaded the animated gif from wunderground. Click to animate:

And now, the best one, from the Rutgers Weather Center. You can clearly see birds rising to the air across the nation, in a sweep from east to west as night progresses (click to animate):

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Stunning non-stop bird flight

Forwarding this email from my friend Jim Pawlicki:


Ten satellite-tagged Bar-tailed Godwits (Limosa lapponica) in the southwestern Pacific are providing a glimpse into the migratory powers of birds. One bird left New Zealand and flew non-stop to the northern end of the Yellow Sea in China, a distance of 10,200 km. The Godwit's flight required about 9 days of continuous flight, and is now the longest recorded non-stop flight of any bird. Three other tagged Godwits have reached China in non-stop flights that lasted between 6.5 and 7.5 days. The progress of the Godwit migration can be monitored at

All I have to say: Wow.

Bird of the Day: Little Gull

A Little Gull (Larus minutus) decided to make an appearance in the Cayuga Lake Basin today, at the extremely convenient spot of Stewart Park, on the south shore of the lake right in Ithaca. I was just walking through the Lab of Ornithology parking lot, looking at my first Rusty Blackbirds of the year, when I hear shouting. I quickly find myself running to the car with Tom and Dan, and we zoom off to Stewart to see the gull cavorting with Bonaparte's right at shore. Literally, it swooped just 20 feet away at times. A small crowd of birders descended on the park, and a flock of telephotos took some pretty good shots. The first photos online go to Tom Johnson (in his Cayuga Lake Basin birding gallery here), and a whole gallery by Ryan Douglas (here). I may add more if more people post. Unfortunately neither Tom nor Ryan got a shot with reference to the shore, and the people standing right nearby. This bird was a second-year bird, with a great pink cast to it.

This bird isn't an overwhelming rarity in the Basin (it has already been seen once or twice this year), but it is worthy of a chase, as it doesn't show up here every year. I was rewarded with the best looks I have ever had, and probably ever will get. I'd have to agree with Tom in his exuberance in calling this bird the Bird of the Year (as of yet!).

Monday, April 16, 2007

A few plumage oddities

This aberrant American Crow (Corvus bracyrhynchos), photographed by Tom Johnson has seen occasionally on campus by myself and others for the past few weeks. Be sure to check out Tom's other photo work.

Sam Galick also has some neat plumage aberrants that my roommate stumbling across and sent my way. Check out the melanistic Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), the white-headed leucistic White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis), and the white-headed leucistic Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis).

Now for some hybrids.

Ben Clock recently completed a plate featuring three hybrid warblers.

Now for a fun little story. Last June, Dave Junkin, a bird bander in western NY, caught an unidentifiable hybrid warbler, unlike any previously recorded. Some feathers were pulled and sent to Irby Lovette at the Evolutionary Biology Lab at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Lab tech Amanda Talaba worked out the genetics pretty quickly, but kept mum about it for some time while a small contest was made out of it. Also, Ben Clock painted the hybrid, going by Junkin's Warbler now.

So what is this (very attractive) bird? Who are its parents? Guesses amongst my friends and varied widely, most of them including Mourning Warbler (Oporornis philadelphia) as a parent. Potential second parents included Canada Warbler (Wilsonia canadensis), Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), and even some musings about a potential (but very unlikely) inter-family hybrid with Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius), which the hybrid bears quite a bit of resemblance to. The answer? Find out here. The speculations of inter-generic hybrids were certainly not unfounded in warblers, where genera remain poorly defined and closely related, but Junkin's Warbler turns out to be a previously unrecorded within-genus hybrid. The answer was pretty surprising, in that the hybrid expresses some phenotypes not found in either parent. The white throat and spectacles may be the result of some genes interacting negatively between the parents, or a throwback to an ancestral phenotype, only expressed with the combination of genes from both parents. Very cool bird, overall.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Bird of the Day: Marvelous Spatuletail; Recording Bird Behavior; Onion Article


I stumbled upon this article while reading the news today: The MSNBC news article. Researchers for the American Bird Conservancy filmed the courtship display of a rare, spectacular hummingbird from Peru, the Marvelous Spatuletail, Loddigesia mirabilis. The full video is available from the American Bird Conservancy: video. Don Roberson's page explains the current (very endangered) status of the bird. I can lavish multiple superlatives on this bird, but the video and pictures speak for themselves. This bird is simply amazing.

The other point I will draw from this news bite is the use of video to record bird behavior. Birds have been recorded since we have the technology, with a particularly rich history emanating from my own home institution, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. A good summary of the beginning is here and I figured this would be a good time to plug Macaulay Library's Animal Behavior Archive, a great resource. The use of video to research birds is growing fast, as is the imperative to 'collect specimens' of bird song and behavior. Highlighting this use is the recently published work by a colleague of mine, Ed Scholes. He has spent the past several years recording the spectacular breeding displays of Birds-of-Paradise (click for awesome BBC video!) in New Guinea. His recently published paper (may be unavailable to viewers without a journal subscription, citation to follow) documents in detail the incredible complex details of just one species display - that of the Carola's Parotia. Ed uses video to show the display, and has voucher clips, the media equivalent of museum skins, at Macaulay. Two figures from his paper follow:

I highly recommend tracking his paper down and giving it a read, or looking up the clips at Macaulay.

A second (self-promoting of course) example of video uses in research, is my own project. I have been enticing Northern Rough-Winged Swallows (Stelgidopterx serripennis) to use artificial nest burrows, so that I can record potentially very unique behaviors inside the burrow. I won't say much more, but you may expect to see results soon enough.

And finally, as a humorous end to my long post, the mock-news paper The Onion has finally taken a swing at birders, with this article - Sibley was wrong.

Ed's Paper:

Edwin Scholes III. 2006. Courtship ethology of Carola's Parotia (Parotia carolae). The Auk. 123 (4): 967-990.

***Edit - I'll add a higher-res version of the second Scholes figure soon as I can, so you can read the caption better.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Birds of the Day: Sypheotides and Pseudopodoces

I just watched the visually stunning (shot in HD!) show Planet Earth, the grassland episode. There was footage of a pretty interesting bird, the Hume's Ground Jay, Pseudopodoces humilis. These are grassland birds of the Tibetan Plateau. The show contained a few clips of them exiting burrows dug by Pikas. I remembered them from reading the family guide Crows and Jays which has a nice plate depicting them running along the ground. Well, I checked my favorite Bird Families of the World website, and was stunned to learn what family they are really in. Recent molecular shows they are actually not related in Corvidae (Crows and Jays) but are instead most closely related to... Paridae. That's right, Chickadees and Titmice! As Don notes, this bird has gone from being the smallest Jay species to the largest Tit species. The exact relationship within Paridae has yet to be shaken out, but it is clearly related, and the name has been changed to Hume's Groundpecker or Hume's Ground-Tit, the name used in the show.

While this was a fascinating bit of bird systematics that I discovered after the show, the real stunner tonight were other bird clips. A black heron-like bird bursts from the tall grass prairie, using flapping assistance in a leap straight into the air in a breeding display, before falling back down. Despite the excellent footage, I was stymied as to what the bird was: was it a Heron (Ardeidae)? Not quite. Crane (Gruidae)? Not really. It was clearly some sort of Gruiform or Galliform, but finally I had to look it up. "Lesser Florican" they called it. As it turns out, this bird is a Bustard, Family Otidae, Order Gruiformes. I definitely wouldn't have guessed that. I was unable to dig up any links to the actual clips, but I did find a photo of the display jump from this site. The wiki turns up scant information, but this site turns up a little more info, including a picture of a mounted specimen. The Lesser Florican, Sypheotides indica, is a monotypic genus of Bustard that is quite endangered. The last link provides some information on it's conservation status.

My Favorite Birding Links

Well, I intended my first post to be the results of my search for drumming Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus), but that pre-dawn expedition was postponed due to weather and the fact that peak drumming isn't for another 2 weeks or so. I'll post on that topic soon enough.

So instead, what I'll post is a summary of my favorite birding links: Birdmail - The online archive of North American birding listserves. You can look up the current birding scene anywhere you want to go. Extremely useful.

Surfbirds - A true birding resource. This site contains photo galleries, birding trip reports, news, and much more. I haven't even explored the half of it yet. I do make daily check of the World Rarities and World Birding photo galleries for some really awesome birds.

Birds of North America - This is a compilation of, in short, all that is known about every species of bird in North America (north of Mexico). It is a resource like none other. You do need to pay for access, fortunately at the moment I get free access via my University's internet access, but that doesn't help all of you. I don't know what the going rate is, but if you find yourself always look up this-or-that fact of different species, then it may well be worth it to try for a year.

NaturePhotographers - This site hosts some of the best bird photography I've ever seen. There are many new posts daily, and many other galleries than just birds. Some work posted here is truly stunning.

eBird - I have not taken the plunge and become an all-out eBirder yet, but that will happen soon. This site is an online archive of all your bird sitings. Just create a location and post your lists. The beauty of it is that data is now available for all to use in looking at bird distribution and abundance seasonally, regionally, etc.

ABA Photo quiz - A fun and often challenging monthly quiz.

That is all for now,

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Putting my ramblings now and future in context

I'm starting this blog as a bully pulpit for a wide range of my interests. I hope to share many unique and interesting tidbits of natural history that fall my way. I'm a University student focusing on evolutionary biology of birds. I've been a lifelong birder, herper, naturalist, and scientist. I am always learning fascinating new things, and have long desired a way to share them in some cohesive manner. You can expect posts on:
- Birding, near and far
- Local herps
- Any other interesting natural history tidbits that strike my fancy
- Science news and the latest being published
- My own collection of captive reptiles and amphibians
- Plants, including my (beginning) orchid collection
- Thoughts on various science readings
- Etc. etc. etc.

I'll try to post regularly, but it remains to be seen how often that will be, depending on the vagaries of my work load from school and research. For now, you can check out my website I have set up for information on my herp collection: Please do leave comments on my posts, I love to hear what other people find interesting or not, opinions, etc.