Winter Birding: Get Outside and Freeze Your Retrices Off!

Just because it’s winter in the northeastern US, doesn’t mean you can’t go birding; and honestly with the mild winter weather, there’s no excuse! Plenty of species are around this time of year that normally are not. We get our own mix of migrants during the winter that range from the Snowy Owl to Snow Buntings and southern or western residents that somehow got mixed up in their migratory trajectory. eBird is a great place to go see your local hotspots and find those wayward birds that could be a lifer for you.

Image result for snowy owl
A Snowy Owl takes flight – credit: Cornell All About Birds

A favorite bird to go looking for is the Snowy Owl, and with good reason. This striking bird breeds and mostly lives up north in the frozen tundra, but in the winter, they sometimes come farther south and give us an opportunity to observe this elegant species. I saw a Snowy Owl once a couple of years back. My significant other and I were on the way to a concert driving on one of the country’s busiest thoroughfares, I-95, when the owl flew in front of/above our car and over the highway to the other side of John Heinz Wildlife Refuge. It was quite exciting, and frustrating because sometimes your lifer does not happen when it’s convenient.

Snow Geese
Snow Geese making a stop at Middle Creek on their annual migration up to the Arctic for breeding.

However, there are some places where your lifer comes out en masse. A great place to see tens of thousands of Snow Geese is Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area starting in mid-February and lasting until about mid-March. It seems this year, the migration has started a little early, but with the mild weather, the trip to Lancaster County should be a breeze! There’s nothing quite like the sight or sound of seeing tens of thousands of geese moving around.

So, what are you waiting for? Get outside and bird! With the Great Backyard Bird Count coming up, there’s an extra excuse to get outside!


Magnificent Monday: Spix’s Macaw Is Back!

You may have heard of this species since it inspired the movie Rio, an animated movie about Blu, a Blue Macaw (really, it’s a Spix’s but they changed that in the movie), who is raised in captivity after being poached from the wild, and ends up back in Brazil for a breeding program, and then the story gets a little complicated after that when he’s poached again. I won’t ruin the rest of it, but it’s a good movie, so see it for yourself – my birds also enjoy the movie. Now, let’s get to the clip of the real Spix’s macaw flying in Brazil…

The video evidence: 

Now that you’ve seen it for yourself…

This is not the only species to make a comeback from extinction: American Alligator, Canada Goose, White-tailed Deer, Whooping Crane, Gray Wolf, Grizzly Bear, Giant Pandas, etc.

Look at those two little dinosaurs... I mean Spix's macaws. Source: Audubon.
Look at those two little dinosaurs… I mean Spix’s macaws.
Source: Audubon.

This comeback is wonderful considering it’s humans that generally are speeding up the process of extinction with deforestation, over-hunting/over-fishing/over-harvesting, pollution, farming, global warming, poaching, and whatever else it is that our species does to drastically change the environment. Perhaps that like other success stories, this is an indication that despite the threats, something humans have changed (i.e., forest practices, habitat restoration and/or protection) have had a positive impact on the comeback of the species. However, considering that rainforests and other habitats of Brazil are still highly under threat, Spix’s macaw is not out of the woods yet. Also, I hope that researchers are going to go in there soon to do some monitoring and find more individuals of this macaw species. It’s been 15 years since the last one was spotted in the wild, so hopefully just like in Rio 2, they’ve found a mini pocket of undisturbed paradise that will get protected to prevent any more disturbance by humans.

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

2014: Second-to-last born in the wild Spix’s macaw dies at around the age of 40

More success stories of species recovery

Information on Deforestation and Rainforest Threats:

NatGeo Rainforest Threats

Threats to the Amazon

WWF Overview on Deforestation



Fantastic Friday: Creches

Today this French-based term isn’t about a tableau for the birth of Jesus, or a British daycare or nursery. This is about animal behavior and the communal care and raising of young. This is a behavior that is exhibited by some bird species, particularly aquatic-based birds such as ducks, geese, eiders, penguins, and cormorants.

Female Mallard with ducklings. Washington, D.C. May 2016. Photo credit: Heather L. Kostick
Female Mallard with ducklings. Washington, D.C. May 2016. Photo credit: Heather L. Kostick

So, how does this even happen? Well, in some cases it’s just parents feeding the wrong kid, like in the case of cliff swallows who are colonial nesters. In other cases, there could be a territory dispute between females with young in tow, and a mix-up of children happens, and they end up with a different mother than they arrived with. However, sometimes it’s just moms teaming up and taking the “it takes a village” approach to parenting. Sometimes even non-breeding females will assist with the care of the young. I observed an example of a creche in D.C. when I was in town for the National Geographic BioBlitz, when a female Mallard had three ducklings in tow, and one of them was decidedly younger than the other two (not pictured). A National Park Service ranger informed me that it’s very common in the Constitutional Gardens to see that sort of thing, and that it was probably poor parenting on the other hen’s part that led to the hen I saw with the mixed-ages young.

So, this is mostly a bird behavior, but there are mammals, such as humans (ever drop know a kid dropped off to a daycare center?) and lions, that exhibit this behavior. It’s pretty cool to see instances of what could be considered adoption and/or daycare in species outside of Homo sapiens.

A little more information and examples:

Brandt’s Cormorants


African Lions 1

African Lions 2 

Thesis Stuff: June Bioblitz A Success

Holy hoonah! That phrase about sums up my June bioblitz for my capstone work, which was a success if I do say so myself. I’m still working on the species count, but it’s looking like we will break last year’s 299 record. Until I have a pretty chart or graph to post, take a look at some pictures from the day.

(photo credit: Heather Kostick)

Mama tree swallow peaking out of her nest box - sorry for bothering you, mama, but I was chasing insects.
Mama tree swallow peaking out of her nest box – sorry for bothering you, mama, but I was chasing insects.
fairy ring fungi in mint
fairy ring fungi in mint
Sphinx attracted to the mercury lamp sheet
Sphinx attracted to the mercury lamp sheet

Fantastic Friday: Interspecies Bonds

**Normally, this would have been published on Friday, however due to the blizzard that hit the east coast of the US, it’s getting published now. Thanks for staying tuned.**

Here’s something to warm your heart on the day of the imminent blizzard that will occur tonight on the east coast. I am guilty of going on to Buzzfeed too often and checking out their articles, mostly due to the fact that the majority are short formats and are a quick read. However, today is not about the newer and popular source of media that is Buzzfeed. Today is about relationships, and I’m not writing about the ones between humans that sometimes result in children. Bonds and relationships formed between two organisms of different species is something truly fantastic to behold. Normally these bonds are either friendship or a mother adopting the abandoned offspring of another species. What caught my attention today was a female rhesus macaque adopting a stray puppy in New Delhi, India. Since monkeys and other primates are cousins of humans, it’s striking to see another primate bonding and caring for the most popular of human companions, a dog.

A rhesus macaque holding her adopted puppy in a New Delhi street. Credit: Dinamalar, Facebook.
A rhesus macaque holding her adopted puppy in a New Delhi street. Credit: Dinamalar, Facebook.

Since the internet began, pictures of cute animals have been around. But, today’s newest cute animal picture got me thinking how widely is this animal adoption phenomena studied by scientists, and is this a normal phenomena? Are the animals that adopt the young of an offspring inferior to other members of their species, therefore not given as many chances to mate and reproduce, and this adoption fills a need/void that the individual may have? Or, are these pictures and articles just the result of people having too much time on their hands, and the result of humans bringing species together that normally wouldn’t have interacted? Lots of questions, and below are some answers, or at least some cases to look at.

Articles on Animal Adoption:

Cross-genus adoption of a marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) by wild capuchin monkeys (Cebus libidinosus): case report

Adoption in Anthropoid Primates

A Case of Animal Adoption (Cow & Mule)

12 Cases of Interspecies Relationships

Penguin Awareness Day

Apparently, January 20 is World Penguin Awareness Day. The East Coast of the US has plunged into penguin-preferred temperatures, so look at some articles on these adorable examples of birds. (Note: most penguins don’t actually live in frigid temperatures, but four penguin species (Adelie, Chinstrap, Emperor, and Gentoo) have given the rest of the penguin species that iconic image of a tuxedo bird in an icy environment.)

A Penguin Photobombs The US Coast Guard
A Penguin Photobombs The US Coast Guard

From Antarctica to Africa, Penguins Are Facing Extinction (CNN)

Scientists Dress Up A Rover To Infiltrate A Flock of Penguins

A Pair Of Male Penguins Become Fathers (Perhaps a subject for a later Fantastic Friday…)

Penguins on the NYSE? SeaWorld Becomes A Publicly Traded Company

Penguins Learning To Swim (Chester Zoo, UK)

22 Reasons Why Penguins Are The Best Damn Animal On Earth

Twitter Celebrates Penguin Awareness Day

Fun Facts About Penguins (USA Today)

A Dark 70-Years-Old Secret About Penguins