The South African Ostrich (Struthio camelus australis), also known as the Black-Necked Ostrich, Cape Ostrich or Southern Ostrich is a subspecies of the common ostrich endemic to Southern Africa. In the 18th century, ostrich feathers were so popular in ladies’ fashion that they disappeared from all of North Africa. If not for ostrich farming, which began in 1838, the world’s largest bird would probably be extinct. Today, ostriches are farmed and hunted for feathers, skin, meat, eggs, and fat — which, in Somalia, is believed to cure AIDS and diabetes. Ostriches were hunted to extinction in the Middle East and might have met the same fate in Africa if not for the evolution of ostrich farms. Ostriches are now farmed commercially in more than 50 countries around the world, including the United States. In Roman times, there was a demand for common ostriches to use in venatio games or cooking. They have been hunted and farmed for their feathers, which at various times have been popular for ornamentation in fashionable clothing (such as hats during the 19th century). Their skins are valued for their leather. In the 18th century they were almost hunted to extinction; farming for feathers began in the 19th century. At the start of the 20th century there were over 700,000 birds in captivity. The market for feathers collapsed after World War I, but commercial farming for feathers and later for skins and meat became widespread during the 1970s. Common ostriches are so adaptable that they can be farmed in climates ranging from South Africa to Alaska.
The Boulders Beach African Penguin Colony was established in 1982 by a breeding pair of penguins who settled near Capetown, South Africa after fleeing when a larger colony was devastated. Today there are currently 28 African penguin colonies, only four of these occurring on the African mainland. These colonies run along the coast, from Algoa Bay in South Africa to Namibia’s Penguin Islands. Despite the huge distances between these colonies, it is not uncommon for young penguins to visit, and occasionally resettle, at a different colony from which they hatched. African penguins are clearly resilient animals. They have evolved the behavioral mechanisms to move their entire population to deal with changes in the abundance of food. Despite their wide range and versatile juveniles, African penguin numbers are declining fast – so fast that it is believed they will be extinct within 10 years. Today there are fewer than 21 000 pairs of African penguins left in the wild – 100 years ago there were single colonies that had over a million, like Yzerfontein’s Dassen Island. Dassen Island is, unfortunately, not a unique case. The total breeding population across both South Africa and Namibia fell to a historic low of about 20,850 pairs in 2019. Quite simply, our common seafoods – sardines, anchovies and pilchards – are the products directly linked to the decline in penguin numbers. You may have been unaware, but sardines/pilchards have recently been added to the WWF SASSI Orange List – a seafood you should avoid. These ratings do not only mean that the fish itself is at risk, but also that the practices used to catch it are harmful to other species. I would go a step further in saying seafood of any kind should only be consumed if it is sustainably farmed. Bottom trawling destroys far more ocean habitat than any other fishing practice. In this common fishing method, large weighted nets are dragged across the ocean floor, clear-cutting a swath of habitat in their wake. Some of these scars will take centuries to heal, if ever.
When reading a birding guide for a specific bird, talking to fellow birders or just researching an unknown bird, terminology comes up that can sometimes be confusing and/or unintelligible. Since I write extensively about birds, sometimes a simple definition of a term is not enough and adding it to the post makes the post unnecessarily long. This post is my solution to bird related anatomy and physiology definitions. Field marks are the distinctive stripes, spots, patterns, colors, and highlights that birds have in such abundance and variety. Birds developed these patterns for many reasons, but one way they use some of these markings is to recognize members of their own species. And bird watchers can use them for the same purpose. Generally speaking, there are two categories of field markings, anatomical/anthropomorphic and human clothing references. The comparison of human anatomy, emotions and characteristics is both familiar and time-honored dating at least as far back as the ancient Egyptians. Anthropomorphic comparisons are comforting, familiar and accurate in many instances. When corresponding anatomy is unclear or inaccurate, clothing analogies can sometimes provide more clarity. When all else fails, there are field markings specific to a specific family of birds.
Since I spend a fair amount of time in Santa Clarita in California I thought that I would write some posts on good nature viewing locations near Santa Clarita. One of the nearest and also one of the best places for birdwatching, plants/flowers and hiking is Placerita Canyon. Placerita is an east-west running canyon featuring cool, shaded oak groves, a willow and sycamore-lined seasonal stream and numerous other interesting plant and animal communities. Placerita Canyon State Park encompasses oak woodland, chaparral, and riparian plant communties on the north side of the San Gabriel Mountains southeast of the City of Santa Clarita. The park not only serves to conserve a slice of the wild environment but also endeavors to educate the public on the value of undisturbed flora and fauna through wild animal presentations, nature hikes, and self-guided educational trails. Also, if you continue up the canyon, you can enter the San Gabriel Mountains, another great nature location.
In October of last year, I had the good fortune to visit the Asa Wright Nature Center and Tobago through Caligo Birding Tours. Trinidad and Tabago are blessed with abundant hummingbirds on both Islands, both at Asa Wright on Trinidad and at the home of Newton George on Tabago. Sometimes there are places with many hummingbirds of just one or two species, but my experience on both islands was both large numbers and a good selection of species, depending to some extent on the time of year that I visited. One of the largest and most beautiful hummingbirds that can be reliably found on both islands in all seasons is the White Necked Jacobin. While I have seen them in smaller numbers in Costa Rica, both sexes were nicely represented at Asa Wright. One of the downsides of having a fair number of both hummingbird numbers and species is the problem of “the little green hummingbird”. By this I mean, small green hummingbirds that look very similar, which usually but not always, can be identified by their limited range and/or your location. In some unfortunate locations which include Trinidad and Tobago, there are several small green hummingbirds that look similar, all in the same place. While this creates some difficulties, close observation can usually resolve ambiguities. I have included both flash and natural photographs and the ISO since I believe flash photography reveals additional aspects of hummingbird colors.
Very few organisms consume nectar exclusively over their whole life cycle, either supplementing it with other sources, particularly insects (thus overlapping with insectivores) or only consuming it exclusively for a set period. Many species are nectar robbers or nectar thieves, performing no pollination services to a plant while still consuming nectar. Nectar-feeding is widespread among birds, but no species consumes nectar exclusively. Most combine it with insects for a mixed diet. Of particular interest are four lineages of specialized nectar consuming birds in the New World: the Hummingbirds (Trochilidae) and three members of the Tanager (Thraupidae) family; Bananaquits, Flowerpiercers and Honeycreepers. These groups have adapted to permit a nectar-central diet, showing higher activity of digestive enzymes which break down sugars, higher rates of absorption of sugars, and altered kidney function. Birds need the enzyme sucrase in their bodies, in order to digest the sucrose of nectar. And most simply don’t have enough. Scientists think birds that can readily digest sugar, like warblers, have an adaptive advantage. When they fly to the tropics for the colder months, they can tap into sources of sugar that other birds just can’t handle. That sweet tooth, it turns out, is important to their survival.
This past spring I traveled to Arcata California for some birdwatching in the Pacific Northwest. In Arcata, they have a bird festival in April called Godwit Days that I could not attend. Nonetheless, I thought it might be an interesting time and place for birding. The local Audubon Society says birding is at its best from winter through early May. You’ll find songbirds in spring through fall, shorebirds, wading birds and waterfowl in the cooler months of October through April, and raptors year round. As predicted, April was not a particularly good time for water birds, although there were songbirds and plenty of spring flowers. Nearly 500 species of birds have been found in Humboldt County; many of these species are unique to Humboldt County. Fortunately I was able to secure Rob Fowler as a guide to the birding areas around Arcata. He knew when and where to look and made most of the following pictures possible. I suspect I will return in a different season to see a different set of birds and of course to see the beautiful scenery in a different light.
This past spring I decided to visit Arcata California a week after their annual Godwit Festival in April since I could not make the sanctuary festival.. The Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary is home to the City of Arcata’s innovative wastewater treatment facility. The sanctuary is 307 acres, including freshwater marshes, salt marsh, tidal sloughs, grassy uplands, mudflats, brackish marsh, approximately 5 miles of walking and biking paths and an Interpretive Center. Located at the north end of Humboldt Bay, the sanctuary is situated along the Pacific Flyway, a major migratory route for thousands of birds that breed in the far north and winter in California, Mexico and Central and South America. The Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary is touted as the highest bird populated coastal site between Bodega Harbor and Washington. While I had visions of masses of migrating birds the reality was somewhat more quiet. I did find a collection of Godwits, and some local ducks, egrets and shorebirds.
I happen to love woodpeckers, they are colorful, noisy and just fun to look at. Their cheerful tapping always calls to me to take a look. There are about 200 known varieties, many of which are threatened or endangered. The plumage of woodpeckers varies from drab to conspicuous. The colors of many species are based on olive and brown and some are pied, suggesting a need for camouflage; others are boldly patterned in black, white and red, and many have a crest or tufted feathers on the crown. Woodpeckers tend to be sexually dimorphic, but differences between the sexes are generally small, usually involving the head. I thought it would be nice to present these all together so that you could see and compare the various forms and colors that woodpeckers exhibit in different places. I have some beautiful woodpeckers from Africa, Costa Rica, Colorado and Arizona. Sapsuckers are also part of the Woodpecker family and I have a beautiful Red-Breasted Sapsucker from Humbolt county in California.
For those fortunate few who view a King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) for the first time, the experience will be unforgettable. King vultures are one of the largest New World vulture, second only to condors. It is not their size however that is visually arresting, but their bright white feathers with a vividly colored head. Certainly early native Americans would have immediately sensed the singularity of this majestic bird and would associate it with a god-like presence in their jungle world. In fact in Mayan legends, the bird was seen as a king who served as a messenger between humans and the gods. They would have observed its habit of displacing smaller vultures from a carcass and eating its fill while they wait, thus warranting the crown of a king among fellow birds. This bird was also known as the “white crow” by the Spanish in Paraguay. It was called cozcacuauhtli in Nahuatl, derived from cozcatl “collar” and cuauhtli “bird of prey”. [Read more…]