Juncos — Not So Ordinary After All

November 16, 2013

Sharon McInnis, October 28 | Excerpted from BIRD CANADA | bird canada.com

Posted on Fat Finch, November 16, 2013

When we moved to Gabriola seven years ago, the first bird I saw in the overgrown, untended garden we inherited with our ‘new’ house was a junco. Although it seems amazing to me now, I’d never noticed this bird in the city. With its black hood and unusual metallic chipping ‘song’, I figured it must be very rare indeed. Then I discovered there are about 630 million Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) in North America. So not very rare after all.

In fact, the junco is one of the most abundant backyard birds on the continent. A ‘rock star study organism’, it’s also one of the most thoroughly studied bird species on the planet. For over forty years Ellen Ketterson, a pioneer in the field of animal behavior from the University of Indiana, has been studying juncos. She explains the fascination: the junco “really lets you study it. … They build their nests on the ground, so you can find them. They thrive in captivity, so you can provide them with seeds, or put them in different social configurations. And they’re content. They actually reveal their biology to you.” Ketterson is one of the scientists whose work is described in “The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco”, an 88-minute video series produced by biologists and filmmakers from Indiana University.

Dark-Eyed Junco by Garry Davey

This fascinating free program explores how juncos behave, especially in terms of evolution. Until seeing this series, the word ‘evolution’ conjured up images of dinosaurs to me. But apparently “Evolution doesn’t just happen over huge numbers of generations or millions of years. It can happen to you or me, or any animal, within our own lifetimes. Amazingly, epigenetic changes to our DNA mean that the genes we pass on to our children can differ from the ones we inherited.” (Zoobiquity, Posted on October 28, 2013 by Sharon McInnes, Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers)

One example of such rapid evolutionary change began in the early 1980s when a small flock of junco migrants remained on the campus of the University of California (UCal) instead of returning to the nearby mountains in winter. When scientists began to study the campus birds, they discovered that this urban population was a new isolated breeding population of Oregon Dark-eyed Juncos. The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco tells the fascinating tale. But let me give you a sneak preview.

Essentially, the UCal juncos demonstrated rapid evolution driven by urbanization. In this case, campus life, with its constant barrage of stimuli, changed the very nature of the juncos. They became, for example, more flexible when foraging and nesting, and bolder than their rural counterparts. They explored more food opportunities, allowed humans to get three times closer than rural juncos (in half the time), and sang at a higher frequency in order to be heard in a noisy urban environment. Ultimately, on the bustling campus, with cars and feral cats and construction noise and artificial lighting at all hours, natural selection favored assertive, flexible, bold juncos. Juncos with spunk.

It turned out these more enterprising juncos were also more attentive, involved parents. As the breeding season of the braver urban birds shifted, for example, the males became more interested in parenting (helping to find food for the nestlings) and less aggressive. (Scientists found they had less testosterone at this time.) These ‘brave’ juncos that were also ‘better’ parents were more likely to survive, breed, and pass on their genes. Soon (in evolutionary terms) these new traits became the norm for this newly-evolved isolated population.

I understand behaviour changing in a new environment; that happens all the time – with birds and people. What surprised me is that the birds’ appearance changed so quickly (they had less white in their tails and less black in their heads within thirty years) and that their genetic makeup, their actual DNA, changed. But apparently this kind of rapid evolution is happening with other populations of urban birds around the world now, just as it did with Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Islands and cichlid fish in Africa.

If I haven’t whet your appetite quite enough to inspire you to drop everything and go watch the 8-video series, check out the trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kvJTMvaKUg. Then, for the whole amazing story, just google The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco. And enjoy!

This article was first published in The Flying Shingle on October 7 2013.
PERMALINK

The Fat Finch Heads to the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

November 3, 2013

The Fat Finch has now officially gone from “bricks” to “clicks”.  We closed our bricks and mortar store on October 19.  By October 31 we had everything packed up and put into storage. (We won’t mention what an ordeal that was, but anyone who has moved a household or the inventory of a store knows the drill.)  The Fat Finch is expanding and we’re adding lots of new products in anticipation of the holidays.

We are about to embark on the first in a series of new adventures—we’re heading to Harlingen Texas to be a vendor at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival which takes place from November 6-10.  Our car is packed to the gills with goodies to sell, so if you’re planning to attend that event or are in the neighborhood, be sure to stop by.  It will be like visiting our actual store, just in a smaller version.  Lots of finely selected merchandise that will fit easily into your suitcase will be for sale.

The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival is one of the finest birding festivals in the country.  Take a look at the festival program and you’ll see some of the reasons we’re excited to be there.  We’ve been in that part of the country once before and were thrilled to see our first green jay, great kiskadee, crested caracara and many other birds (especially shorebirds) that we’ve never seen before.  And any time you can see an aplomado falcon is, by itself, a reason to get excited.  We’ll be back with more posts from the Festival and our trip.

We’re planning to do some post-retail store reading too (for a change!)  And what more appropriate book to take along on our trip than The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

 

Image

September 11, 2013

Leave Your Hummingbird Feeders Up!

hummingbird-8The question arises in the United States and Canada each year about this time:Should we take down our hummingbird feeders so the hummingbirds won’t stay too long and get caught in the cold weather?

The answer is: Leave your feeders up!

The urge to migrate far, far outweighs a bottle full of sugar water. Your hummingbirds will leave when their biological clocks command them to leave, no matter how much food is still available for them. It is likely, in fact, that the hummingbirds at your feeders today are not the same ones that were there two weeks ago. Hummingbird migration has already started and the birds you see today are likely migrants passing through rather than the ones who spent the summer with you.

And, of course, their food supply is dwindling now. Colder nights and cooler, shorter days mean fewer bugs, their primary source of protein, and less nectar from flowers which they also eat in abundance even if human supplied sugar water is available.

But your sugar water is especially helpful to them as they migrate southward. They need immense amounts of energy to migrate successfully and they need to add to their body weight substantially. If you leave your feeders up until the last one has flown through, you will help them maintain that weight for as long as possible and help provide a needed energy boost for the next leg of the journey.

Hummingbird-4For those of our readers who live in the Gulf Coast region of the southern United States, you should leave your feeders out all winter: You may be treated to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds some of whom no longer migrate any further south than your region. Warmer winters and hummingbird feeders have lured some of that species to stay for the winter in your temperate region.

But for the rest of us, it is not yet time to take down our feeders. There are migrating hummingbirds who will thank you to leave them up, with fresh syrup, for a few weeks more.

Share this:

 

A Rare Bird Visits the USA

July 31, 2013

On July 7, 2013 (which just happens to be this writer’s birthday), a rare bird appeared for the first time ever in the United States and best of all, appeared in our neck of the woods.   On that day, a young birder was shooting a video of a least bittern at the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, NM and at the end of the video a Rufous-Necked Wood Rail appeared.  This bird is found in South America and parts of Mexico.

Great excitement in the birding world ensued and visitors from all over the country came to get a glimpse of this rare visitor.  The bird cooperated by staying over a week and usually in a spot that was easily accessible to the viewers.

Stay tuned for a longer post about the wood rail with photos taken during its visit.  We wonder if this bird heard that the rufous (hummingbirds) were returning to New Mexico this time of year and got confused.  And even more interesting?  Where will it go next?

Image

Shapeshifting and the New Crossley ID Guide to Raptors

March 12, 2013

“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. No, it’s a plane. No, it’s Superman!”

Image

Well, no. Actually it is a bird.

In fact, it’s the fastest animal on earth. While the cheetah plods along at 70 mph this bird can zoom through the sky up to 240 mph. Plummeting from the heavens and enduring G forces that would kill a person, this paragon of flight and vision, with eyes that see shapes and patterns humans can’t, entered mythology long before Richard Crossley wrote his marvelous new Princeton Crossley ID Guide to Raptors. Another Englishman, J.A. Baker wrote, “Evanescent as flame peregrines sear across the cold sky and are gone, leaving no sign in the blue haze above.” They are, these peregrines, the little brothers and little sisters of Eagle.

“What do they see?” wondered Anaximander of Miletus about these birds two thousand five hundred years ago. About the same time, the Native Americans of North America knew what they saw. Shapeshifting was easier then and many people, not just the shamans, could do it. Later, ordinary people lost the power of flight and only shamans could do it. Soon human flight became metaphorical flight and the idea of the soul as a bird was born. Then flight and intelligence joined. In the Hindu Rig Veda we read, “Among all things that fly, the mind is the swiftest.” Another ancient text proclaims, “Those who know have wings.” Calling someone a “bird brain” is a high compliment indeed.

crossleyraptorsA fine new book is on the way about peregrines and all the other raptors of the world. Princeton’s Crossley ID Guide to Raptors will soon be available and promises to be every bit as useful and as beautiful as the other guides in the series. You can pre-order from our store, The Fat Finch.

Long before people and animals lost the ability to shapeshift, the Apache Black Hactcin held out his hand and a drop of rain fell into his palm. He mixed it with earth and fashioned the first bird from the resulting mud. The bird flew and the Hactcin saw that that the bird needed companions so he grabbed the mud-bird and whirled it around his head, faster and faster. The mud-bird grew very dizzy and began to see many images as it whirled around. He saw hawks and eagles, other raptors, and song birds too. Then the Hactcin stopped whirling the mud-bird and those images became real birds. To this day the raptors created in that Apache’s whirl live in the air and seldom land on the ground because the rain that helped create them fell from the sky.

DIGITAL CAMERAHigh on the mountain in New Mexico known as Shiprock lived the bird-monsters that were eating all the people on the earth. This was before modern raptors. It is said that one of the Navajo Hero Twins, Monster Slayer climbed the huge rock and killed both of the bird monsters. Two fledglings in the nest were terrified, but Monster Slayer decided not to kill them. To the eldest he said, “You will give us plumes for our rites and bones we will use to make whistles.” Whirling the fledgling around his head four times he flung it high in the air and it became First Eagle. To the younger monster bird he said, “You will be an oracle to my people and foretell the future. Sometimes you will tell the truth and other times you will lie.” He whirled that bird around his head four times and, as he did so, the bird’s head became large and round and its eyes grew larger and larger until the bird became First Owl.

Once a water monster made war on the people and flooded the earth. Only one person survived, a young woman. As she was about to drown a great eagle — perhaps the one made by the Apache or maybe the Navajo one — flew over the young woman, allowing her to grab his talons. He flew with her to the top of a spire in the Black Hills where he lived in his aerie. It was the only dry place on earth. There they lived as man and wife and they had two children, a boy and a girl. When the waters finally receded these two children of an eagle and a human returned to the earth and founded the Lakota Nation.

From the Crossley Guide, used with permission

From the Crossley Guide, used with permission

Some scoff at these creation stories from other and older cultures, but doubters may remember that physicists have just found the Higgs Boson, the last remaining particle necessary to confirm the family of elementary particles predicted by the Standard Model of physics. That means one single electron can be in two places at the same time. In fact, it can be everywhere at the same time. It’s sister electron can be at the far end of the universe but it can communicate with her instantaneously, never mind the speed of light. Superposition is real. Nothing is certain. Matter is nothing but highly concentrated energy that shapeshifted into the mass that blurs in the sky above you as Eagle’s little brother, the peregrine, hunts.

The universe is a strange place and we all should remember Niels Bohr’s injunction to no less a person than Albert Einstein. “Albert”, he said, “perhaps your idea of reality is too limited.”

_________________________

This post is part of Princeton’s Blog Tour and we’re supposed to send you on to the next stop at The Flying Mullet. As they say in Spanish, que le vaya bien. (Travel well.) Thanks to Jessica Pellien of Princeton for organizing the tour. She has done good work.

The Elegance of Vultures

December 3, 2012

TV -1We had our first “up close and personal” meeting with a Turkey Vulture this weekend. She is a rescued bird who cannot be released into the wild and so is kept by our local wildlife rescue facility as an educational bird. We had a special shopping/fund-raising event at The Fat Finch over the weekend and the wildlife rescue folks brought several birds for our shoppers to see.

As is my custom when photographing portraits, I spent a little time getting to know her before hauling out my camera. (Knowing something about your subjects is critical if you are do them justice in a portrait.) Surprisingly, after watching her for a little while I realized that the word that kept arising in my mind to describe her was “elegant”.

Somehow most of us don’t associate vultures with elegance. But the grace with which she moves, the gentle brilliance of her eyes, and her centered calmness all add up to elegance. Think Cary Grant or Grace Kelly in feathers.

Of course, I’m not the first to note fine qualities in Turkey Vultures. Here is Edward Abbey,

Let us praise the noble turkey vulture: No one envies him; he harms nobody; and he contemplates our little world from a most serene and noble height.

TV 2-1And I shouldn’t have been at all surprised with her down-to-earth elegance. I’ve spent many happy hours in my life watching vultures soar on thermals high with hardly a feather stirring as they ride on outstretched wings. Elegantly.

But they are the eaters of death and I suppose that is why we don’t usually associate them with elegance. We have a New Yorker cartoon refrigerator magnet in the store that shows two vultures sitting on a tree talking to one another. One vulture says to the other, “Of course dead is important but taste matters too.”

And I must say that after meeting her I agree entirely with Abbey who, before dying, made arrangements to feed his death to the vultures. He wrote,

If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture–that is immortality enough for me.

War on Caterpillars

April 7, 2012

Gail Collins takes note today of the problem Republicans have connecting with women voters. A poll last week disclosed that Mitt Romney trails President Obama by eighteen points among women voters in key states. She quotes Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, as saying, “If the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars, and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we’d have problems with caterpillars.”

That bothered Gail Collins some, perhaps because she can’t see the connection between women and caterpillars nor can she understand what it was that made Mr. Priebus think of a war on caterpillars of all things. Collins worries, “We’re already losing all the bees, and the bats are in trouble. We do not want these people picking on caterpillars at all.”

But, even if Republicans wanted to have a war on caterpillars, they may be too late. Gardens Alive, Inc. is already on the job.

On our desk is a catalog from that company and on page 52 we see that they are selling 100% roasted caterpillars. For thirty dollars you can have 1,250 of the little buggers delivered to your door-step. For fifty-five dollars they will send you 2,500. The caterpillars, according to the catalog, “contain the fat, protein and potassium insect-eating birds need.” They are mess-free and more convenient than live mealworms because, you see, dehydrated roasted caterpillars, don’t move from the feeder.”

Whew. That’s good news. Dead caterpillars crawling around our yard would worry us almost as much as a war on women.

_________________

Thanks to the photographer calling herself Mamageek for uploading her photograph and making it available under the Creative Commons license.

 

 

 

 

The Fat Finch’s Bird and Photo Walk

February 27, 2012

Thanks to Sandhill Cranes, Canada Geese, and various ducks, our Fat Finch photo/bird walk last Saturday was a success. Four of us took out a group of twenty people for hints and tips on bird photography and we thought you’d like to see some of the results. For this post we’ve selected three photos that illustrate some of the suggestions we made last time in Eight Steps to Great Bird Photography.

First up is a crane in flight, taken by one of the leaders, Tomas Spross.

Tomas Spross 2012

For those of you interested in the finer points of photography, that photo was taken with a 300mm f-4 lenses set at f-11 and 1/2000th of a second. Notice the diagonal created in the photo by the bird’s body. Diagonal compositions often create a dynamic sense of movement in photographs and this photograph conveys the energy and speed of flight. Triangles have the same effect, illustrated here by the triangle created by the bird’s wings that leads your eyes directly to the bird’s eye which is at one of the Rule of thirds intersections. (More on that below.)

Next up is a fine photo of a Green-winged Teal taken by another of the leaders, Bosque Bill, as he likes to be known. This horizontal composition conveys the calmness of the duck. Note that the duck’s eyes are not at either side of the photo, so the viewers’ eyes aren’t led out of the photo before they notice the blue-green reflection on the water of the duck’s head .

Bosque Bill 2012

The other two leaders of the group, Linda Rockwell and Kent Winchester, never got around to taking any photos. We are waiting for participants to send us examples of their photos.

We end today’s post with a photo made by Matt Bruno, a participant who is ten years old. Matt was unable to go with us after the introductory talk at the Fat Finch store but he sent along three photographs he made earlier in the month. We’re using only one today, a shot of an American Kestrel that perfectly illustrates another point about composition.

Matt Bruno 2012

We have here another diagonal composition, the tree limbs beginning in the lower left and ending with the kestrel. Although the kestrel is perched in this photo, the diagonal gives you a sense of its kinetic energy, waiting for release when it swoops down on its next bit of food.

Rule of Thirds

Note the location of the kestrel’s eyes – precisely on one of the intersecting points resulting from the Rule of Thirds. (A subset of the Golden Ratio used by artists and architects since at least the time of ancient Egypt.)

Thanks to all who participated. It was a great morning of wild birds and photographers.

Eight Steps to Great Bird Photography

February 24, 2012

 

FIND THE BIRD

The absolute best way to find birds to photograph is to go out with an experienced birder. No field guide will reliably get you to birds as rapidly. If you don’t know a good birder, join your local Audubon club or call a birding store and ask about local birding hot spots.  And, even when you’re out without a birder, stop anytime you see a group of people with binoculars and spotting scopes. Birders share their delights.

Field guides are the second best way to find birds to photograph. Most field guides have been reduced for your smart phones and computer tablets and they show it. Get the real book. National Geographic’s is the most comprehensive, followed closely by Sibley’s and by Ken Kaufmann’s. Not only do they show you the bird and tell you where it lives and travels, they tell you about its habits. Birds, like all animals, are creatures of habit. More about that in a moment.

GET CLOSE

For the best telephoto lens, take ten steps forward.  Wear dull clothing, use trees, bushes, grasses, and other natural obstacles to sneak up on the birds. If necessary, crawl, don’t walk. The sooner you forget your natural dignity, the sooner you’ll get fantastic photographs.

SIT DOWN AND WAIT

You have, as Wendell Berry puts it, come into “the peace of wild things.” Find a likely habitat, sit down, and be silent. The birds will come to you as soon as you are at peace.

ALTERNATIVE METHOD

Create a bird photography station in your backyard. All you need are feeders, bird seed, and a comfortable place to sit. You can even sit indoors, next to a window.

MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPHS

CHECK YOUR CAMERA

You are in place, quietly waiting for the birds. Now is the time to check your camera. Is it turned on? Lens cap removed? Are the settings correct? If you are shooting with a modern digital camera, 90% of the time its automatic setting will deliver acceptable photographs. Beware:  It has a built-in bias for a wide aperture and fast speed, meaning that the depth-of-field – the area in focus – will be limited. If you can, manually set the ISO to 200 (Good light) or 400 (Bad light) to minimize digital “noise.”

COMPOSE 

Ready to shoot? Take three more seconds to compose the photograph. In your mind’s eye divide the scene you are looking at through the camera into equal thirds, vertically and horizontally. Adjust the camera so that the bird or, even better, the bird’s eyes are at one of the nine points where the lines intersect. Don’t put the bird in the precise middle of the frame. That results in a static, boring composition.

Unless you are waiting for the bird to look directly at the camera, leave space on the side of the photograph where the bird is looking. Otherwise, your viewer’s eyes will leave the photograph before seeing all the photograph. And even though almost all birds’ eyes are on the side of their heads, your photographs will be more interesting if the bird is looking toward the camera. Include some habitat that is in focus. (That will be difficult or impossible if you are shooting with large telephoto lenses which have severely limited depth-of-field.)

There is nothing wrong with photographs of perched birds, but action will add interest to your photographs. Try to get shots of take-offs and landings.

Birds telegraph their take-offs. Cranes and shorebirds often stare in the direction of take-off before starting their take-off runs. Birds usually take off and land into the wind. Raptors and other mid-sized birds will crouch just before leaving their perch. Almost all birds defecate in the seconds before take-off. Focus on the bird’s head when you see this behavior and start clicking the shutter at the first move.

Birds in flight require forethought. If you wait until the bird is flying by you, it’s going too fast for your camera’s automatic focus system to keep up. Predict from where the bird will come, pre-focus by depressing the shutter button part way, and wait for the bird to reach that point before taking the photo. If your camera allows burst shooting, take several shots, increasing the odds of getting one that is sharply focused. And remember that a photograph with a bird flying directly toward your camera will emotionally make your viewers participants; not observers.

FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS

You’re almost ready now. The only thing left to do is focus, focus, focus.

SUMMARY

For bird photography the old maxim of documentary photography, “F8 and be there” works best. You can substitute F5.6 or F11 aperture settings for F8. Modern digital cameras allow you to substitute “automatic” settings.

There is no substitute for being there.

Finally, and most important, remember why you are there.

 

Kent Winchester

www.landofclearlight.com

www.abqphotographersgallery.com

 

Basic Bird Photography

February 14, 2012

Photo Copyrighted by Linda Rockwell

The Fat Finch presents monthly events.  The next one will be Saturday, February 25, a workshop on photographing wild birds.

Taking  good photographs of wild birds can be a challenge.  In addition to understanding your camera, it helps to know a bit about basic bird behavior.  Take a lesson with two photographers who are also experienced birders.  This workshop will be a fun and easy event, perfect for any level photographer with any kind of camera.

Space is limited, so call The Fat Finch at 505-898-8900 for more information and to make a reservation. We’ll meet at the store and drive to the Rio Grande Nature Center after a brief orientation. Participants will receive a one-day 10% off coupon for use at the Fat Finch. Click here for directions.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 63 other followers

%d bloggers like this: