Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Kookaburra Close Encounter

Our surprise arrived suddenly ... or maybe pleasant shock is a better description. It all began during a visit to the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia. I'll digress for a minute to say that Taronga Zoo is a great place to visit with it's beautiful setting and collection of animals. There is a very, very large aviary with a wonderful group of large Psittacines (parrots) ... especially the Cockatoos that Australia is so famous for. Some of these aviary birds were so friendly that they flew right over to where this parrot lover was standing so I could really get a close up view and chat with them for awhile. What can I say ... it was wonderful! The Taronga Zoo also has some unbelievable views of Sydney and the harbor. So it's a great place to visit just for the view in case the animals aren't enough reason to visit. Of course, they were the draw for me. Taronga also has some interesting educational shows about Australia's native species so the visit really couldn't have been a better experience.

Back to the surprise I mentioned. While we were having lunch it arrived in the form of a Kookaburra. There we were, my brother and I, having a burger and fries at a small patio table. All of a sudden a wild Kookaburra flew right down to our table (not over a few inches away from my hand) and relieved us of one of our french fries. Needless to say, we were delightfully startled. And it was fun to watch him devour the fry on a nearby tree branch. Then he decided he needed another fry and returned for a second one. The people at nearby tables were as entertained as we were. It was pretty obvious that this wasn't the bird's first people-food snack. But for these American visitors his desire for fast-food made our day.

Some have described the Kookaburra as a plain-looking bird. Perhaps so, as it's back and wings are usually brown. However, in my opinion it isn't dull or uninteresting at all. In fact, I find them very attractive. The Kookaburra's overly large head (as compared to the rest of it's body) is creamy white with a brown eye stripe and very large beak. The bird is approximately 18 inches long (45 cm) and weighs close to a pound. Kookaburra's get all the moisture they need from their food so drinking isn't necessary. (Although I wonder how our visitor felt after eating the high salt content of those fries!) Their nests are built in hollow trees or even a termite mound.

Kookaburras are fascinating birds. They are members of the Kingfisher family and are famous for their racous "laugh" ... thus being nicknamed the "laughing Kookaburra". Many people around the world are familiar with it thanks to Hollywood films in which the laugh is the background in most every jungle whether the setting is in the Amazon or Africa (the bird is not native to either of these places though ... but that's Hollywood for you). In lieu of having sound to share in this weblog, their call can be described as beginning with a low 'oooo' chuckle that increases to a high "ha ha ha" and then back to a low chuckle. There isn't much doubt that it would be instantly recognizable upon hearing it. The Kookaburra's loud laughing call travels far through the forests where others of its kind hear it. The call is used both in courting rituals and for claiming territory.

But the Kookaburra call is not the only interesting feature of the bird. It has also adapted to it's environment in some unusual ways. And, as evidenced by our zoo encounter, Kookaburras have even adapted to humans with some even becoming tame enough to be handfed.

This bird is indeed a survivor ... living in the woodland and open forests of Australia and also Tasmania were it has been introduced. The Kookaburra is a terrestial Kingfisher. Unlike most Kingfishers, it doesn't catch fish but rather it's diet consists of lizards, mice, small birds, and an occasional snake. One of it's unusual behaviors is the way it kills prey. Kookaburras have been observed taking their catch high into the air to drop it, or they smash in on a tree branch. SIDEBAR - When we lived in Florida I watched a Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon) preparing it's meal of fish by repeatedly bashing it against our boat dock. That Belted Kingfisher landed on the dock daily as he cruised his territory. His visits (infrequently accompanied by a mate) were so dependable that I watched for him everyday. It was an added bonus when he caught a fish from the dock and I was able to observe his eating behavior. I was told that Belted Kingfishers repeatedly smash the fish to break the bones to make it easier to eat. I don't know if that is true ... it may just be done to kill the fish.

Kookaburras mate for life and have an unusual parenting behavior. They breed from September to January laying pure white eggs about the size of a Bantam chicken. The clutch size varies from one to five eggs with two to four eggs being common. Kookaburras lay eggs a day apart and incubate them between 24-26 days. After the young are reared and fledge they often stay around the nest to help the parents with the next clutch of babies. This behavior contrasts dramatically with the majority of birds who leave the nest once they are fledged to search for territory and mates of their own. When a Kookaburra family-system of chick rearing has been established it is usual for a second clutch of chicks to be raised in one season. In this instance, the offspring of prior clutches will take over the raising of the first brood of the season while the parents attend to the second. In a Kookaburra family group all the birds develop a brood patch which is a bare spot of skin on the breast used to transfer body heat to incubate the eggs. There have been documented cases where the helper birds spend more time incubating eggs than one of the parents. Most helpers are males who assist with nesting duties as well as territory defense. If a parent dies often a helper will take the place of the missing mate. SIDEBAR - Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) have been studied and shown to use the same cooperative breeding method.

Having a close enounter with a wild bird gave me a great reason to learn more about the species. Spending a little extra time delving into the facts about birds has proven time and again that birds have fascinating stories to tell. It's one reason I'll continue to keep learning about as many species as this lifetime allows.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Ivory-billed Woodpecker on 60 Minutes

I watched 60 Minutes on CBS last night! It was a great opportunity to learn a little more about the re-discovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker ... otherwise known as the Lord God Bird. According to Ed Bradley's report the woodpecker was called the Lord God Bird because it was so beautiful and impressive that when people saw it they said "Lord God ... what a bird".

I've never been to Arkansas and from what I saw on the show it has an incredible natural world called the Big Woods, where the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has reported to have been sighted. It was described on the show as "... one of the most exotic and the most inhospitable environments in America, a vast primordial ooze (swamp), a place so wild, the Big Woods have been called this country's Amazon". Needless to say, I am grateful for the opportunity to see it again on my computer.

The re-discovery of a bird thought to be extinct is exciting beyond words. For myself, I can only be thankful if such an event has taken place and the world may once again know and perhaps be given a second chance to delight in the beauty of an awesome bird.

I hope the news remains positive about this discovery and not end in a situation like the Spix Macaw in South America. When I heard that a Spix Macaw had been sited in Brazil in the early 1990's, it turned out to be the last one in the wild. Continued sitings of the bird lasted over a few years, the last in 2000 ... and then reported perished in 2001. How incredibly sad. Hope for the future of this bird remains in the hands of the few breeders trying to save the species with the handful of remaining individuals in captivity. With a limited gene pool I wonder how successful they will be.

To think of how incredibly short-sighted and heartless it is to destroy species as well as ecosystems is hard to fathom. Thank goodness we live in a more enlightened time where there is now concern felt for these issues and people taking action. Perhaps the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has been found and still has a chance for survival. If it does exist perhaps it won't end up vanishing like North America's only parrot, the Carolina Parakeet that was hunted to extinction in the early 1900's ... along with the demise of so many others. For me, I celebrate the discovery of the Ivory-billed and pray for it's future and good fortune.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Hummingbird Battle

It was the warm San Diego sun that beckoned me to the outdoors and, specifically, to my hammock. My home is so sheltered by trees and foliage that it stays very cool and actually feels chilly at times. So I couldn't resist setting my computer work aside to take a quick catnap in the sunny warmth outside. My hammock is hard to resist . . . it is soooo comfortable with a feather pillow under my head and a glass of iced tea. I lost track of the number of times that is has proven to be "the place" to take a short refreshing nap or just relax to relieve some built-up stress. I don't think I could survive as well as I do without it. The other great thing about the hammock is that it rests on my deck about 4-5 feet from one of my hummingbird feeders. I just lay quietly in the hammock and get some wonderful views of the irridescent little gems that come to feast on the nectar. Ah, the best of both worlds . . . lots of comfort and some great bird watching.

Today, as I lay in the hammock getting my dose of Vitamin D for the day from the sun, I witnessed a true hummingbird battle. Now it isn't unusual for the hummers to be chasing each other away from the feeders . . . each trying to assert their dominance over it. But today, the sound of clashing beaks startled me and opened my eyes to witness two hummers battling about 4 feet away. It was an amazing demonstration of how aggressive these little guys can be with each other. The battle only lasted for a few seconds but it seemed longer as I watched them fly at each other repeatedly to do their little sword-like battle. It ended in seconds without injury (as most bird aggression does) when one of the birds finally decided to fly off to a nearby tree. Of course, that was only momentary, too . . . as a few seconds later he was back to chase the other bird away from the feeder.

There are a number of hummers that come to my feeders regularly. I can identify some of them by their habits as well as their species and markings. They seem like old friends . . . and in a way they are. The two most common visitors are Black-chinned (summer visitors, although they are still here now in early October) and Anna's who stay in the San Diego area year-round. I'm fortunate to have at least one species here all the time, so I always keep my
feeders full.

My style of hammock-oriented hummingbird watching is just the ticket for me. You might find it fun, too.

Monday, October 03, 2005

News From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Where do you go for news about birds? One great place is The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, of course. It's easy to subscribe to their emailed newsletter. More about how to contact them in a minute.

It was a pleasure to hear some good news about endangered birds in the online newsletter:

Far from a backyard visitor, the Attwater's Prairie Chicken is critically endangered. To make matters worse 20 of the last 40 remaining birds live in Texas City, TX at the Texas City Prairie Reserve. The worst part has to do with Hurricane Rita. The Reserve Manager, Brandon Crawford, was out of state at a conference during the recent bad weather and rushed back with 1-gallon ziplock body bags in hand expecting to find the pairie chickens killed by the hurricane. But what he found was all 11 radio-collared birds giving off live signals. He was in shock ... pleasantly shocked to be sure, especially since 7 of the collared birds had been released a little over a month before. The death toll of released birds is highest in the first month. He feels that the uncollared birds may have fared just as well. Hope so.

A graduate student, Rebecca Safran, doing research at the Cornell Lab discovered some intriguing facts about Barn Swallows (see photo above). Here is what she discovered. After Barn Swallows pair up for the season the females constantly judge their mates by their looks. The females evidently prefer their mates to have breast and belly feathers more reddish in color. Through DNA testing, Ms. Safran found that females mated to males with paler feathers were more likely to secretly copulate with another male. Hmmmmm!

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is the place to keep up to date on the latest information about the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker which was believed to be extinct. You can even hear a Monday Night Seminar Series that includes information about this bird ... as well as a lot of other information. The seminar is presented by Tim Gallagher, Editor-in-Chief of the Lab's Living Bird magazine. The seminar is available through the Lab's Website if you have a broadband Internet connection.

If you are a backyard bird feeder and enthusiast you might be interested in the 18th annual
Project Feeder Watch. This year's event begins in just a few weeks. Project Feeder Watch is an annual survey of birds that visit feeders in the winter. I'm going to participate this year ... perhaps you'll consider signing up, too. Anyone can join and become a "citizen scientist" for a few weeks. It is a lot of fun and contributes important statistics to the real scientists at the Lab. To learn more about this event or to register U.S. residents can call the Lab toll free at (800) 843-2473. In Canada contact Canada Bird Studies toll free at (888) 448-2473. In return for your $15 participation fee ($12 for Lab members, $35 for Canadian residents) you'll receive the Feeder Watcher's Handbook, a colorful poster of the most common feeder birds, a calendar, complete instructions on how to file your reports, the new Feeder Watcher's Year in Review, and a subscription to the Lab's newsletter
If you aren't a member of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and would like to learn more you'll find a link to the Lab's website on the Birdwatchin'.com Resource page. The Lab's link is found under Wild Bird Organizations/Clubs. Don't miss the other good resources at