Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Nature Notes: Birds on Ice

I spent Christmas at my parents' home and they have a very active bird feeder in front of the dining room window. Above is a female blackbird (Turdus merula), she keeps close to the feeder, as does her mate, but I didn't get a photo of him (he's black, with a bright yellow beak).
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A European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), it comes every day to feed on the suet-filled coconut.
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A European Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus), he always pops into the feeder to get a sunflower seeds and then cracks the seeds sitting on the edge of the feeder or the hedge with a good view of everything that goes one.
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A Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), those are so tiny and adorable
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a leftover rosehip
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Aaron's Beard (Hypericum calycinum), you may also know it as Rose of Sharon, Jerusalem Star or Great st-John's Wort
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thy ivy is full of icicles
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See if you can find all three birds here:
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Nature Notes is hosted by Michelle at Rambling Woods

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

ABC Wednesday: X is for X-Ray Fish

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Those are Ghost Catfish (Kryptopterus minor), sometimes also known as X-Ray Fish. They are native to Borneo, about 3 inches long and only one of a whole number of species with similar looks.
Ghost Catfish live in groups of ten or more fish and prey on insects and smaller fish. They can reach an age of ten years and are often kept in captivity, although no-one has managed to breed them (as far as I know).
Just how transparent an individual fish is depends on its diet and habitat. Like all catfish, they have no scales and since they don't have any body pigments, they are transparent.

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Find out what else X stands for with ABC Wednesday

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Nature Notes: Backyard with Bird

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I took all these photos a few days ago in the yard behind my house - no-one else has been there since it snowed and it felt a bit like sacrilege to leave footprints in the snow.
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The weather has been cold and without any wind, so the trees are still covered in a frosting of snow. The first time I tried to take a photo like this, the crystals melted because I breathed on them while focusing the camera.
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The day after that, the weather was gorgeous and the trees looked especially beautiful against the blue sky.
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See if you can find the Short-Toed Tree Creeper (Certhia brachydactyla) here (click for bigger version):
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I cropped another photo a bit, he's right in the middle of the picture:
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Nature Notes is hosted by Rambling Woods

The caterpillar from last time is staying in the fridge now, by the way. It has fallen into a torpor and if it works out as planned, I will be able to put it outside to pupate in a coulpe of months.

In response to a question in the comments: the Brown Creeper is a different species (Certhia americana), but from the same family and genus. It's the only North American Treecreeper species.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

ABC Wednesday: W is for Woodlouse

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I have a special place in my heart for woodlice. They were my first "exotic" pets - I caught a handful in our garden and had a thriving colony for a couple of years. I learned a lot about them and even got to watch a woodlouse birth. Well, not a real birth, but woodlice store their eggs in a pouch under their belly and the babies will emerge from that pouch once they have hatched.

Woodlice (aka pillbugs, roly polies, sowbugs, butcher boy, doodlebug and a host of other names) are crustaceans and they are the only crustaceans that don't need to return to water to reproduce. Some species are aquatic, though, and they all need moisture to breathe.
They moult to grow and will do so in two stages, first the back half and then the front, so if you see a two-coloured woodlouse, it's in the process of moulting. Another curious thing about woodlice is that they pee in gaseous form through their antenna (land hermit crabs do that, too)
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The little guy here is a Porcellio scaber, a common rough woodlouse, but there are about 3000 other species worldwide. Some species can curly up into a tight ball if disturbed, but most can't. Sometimes, they are confused with Pill Millipedes like this one
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It curled up when I touched it and stayed that way for a few minutes, then continued on its way. I found out only later that this was a pill millipede and how to tell them apart (the millipedes have much smoother body segments for example and they look shiny).

I still keep woodlice because they are very efficient cleaners in my land hermit crabs terrarium and in the poison arrow frog terrarium, both have enough humidity for the woodlice to thrive. They feed on plants matter and leftover crab food (crabs are messy eaters), thus making it unnecessary to change out the coconut fibre substrate in the crabitat.
Woodlice Online has many more fascinating facts about them. ARKive.org has some great videos and photos.

What else does W stand for? Find out with ABC Wednesday

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Nature Notes: Moth in Winter

We buy only organic food and if the price is a caterpillar in my cauliflower, then that's fine with me.
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But what do I do with a caterpillar right in the middle of winter? It's freezing outside and it would die. So I put it in a box with some cauliflower leaves and did some research.
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What I have here it a Large Yellow Underwing and it overwinters as a caterpillar. I'm going to keep it in an unheated room for a few days and then it will go into the fridge until it's warm enough outside that it won't notice the difference. Since they eat all kinds of plants, feeding it won't be a problem.
I've seen the adult moth a few times, they sometimes are attracted to the light inside. In German, they are called Hausmutter, that means Housemother. Here's a picture.


Nature Notes is hosted by Michelle over at Rambling Woods

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

ABC Wedneyday: V is for Vulture

There are two groups of vultures, Old World and New World vultures. All of them are carrion eaters, often with some degree of specialization (feeding only on bones ect.). They can digest not only rotten meat, but also meat infected with anthrax, Botulism and other disease, thus preventing infections from spreading.

Here's a vulture that those of you in the Americas may be familiar with, the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura). That is the only vulture species I have ever seen in the wild, in Oregon, where a group fed on a dead gull.
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Turkey vultures are unusual birds because they have a very keen sense of smell and use it to find food, especially those populations living in wooded areas. They also don't have a larynx and can only vocalize in hisses and grunts.

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A Monk Vulture (Aegypius monachus) so called because of the "shaved" head and cowl. It's a large bird, with a wingspan of up to 3 metres/119 inches and it can fly at very high altitudes, the haemoglobin in its blood can take in an extra amount of oxygen. It lives in Europe and Asia and it can feed on things like small bones, sinews and muscles that other vultures and carrion eaters won't eat.
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This bird isn't blind in one eye, it just blinked and shows the nictitating membrane, the third eyelid.

Here's a Griffon Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) also known as Laemmergeier (lamb vulture) because it was believed that they attacked lambs. They are counted among the Old World vultures, but in fact they are not that closely related to other vultures and resemble hawks in many respects. They have a feathered neck because once they arrive at a carcass, there are usually only the bones left. The Bearded Vulture will then either crack the bones with its beak or pick up big bones and drop them onto rock from a great height. They feed almost exclusively on bone marrow. They used to be called Ossifrage, which means bone breaker, and they may also use that technique on tortoises.
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Here's my favourite vulture, the King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa).
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It lives in Central and South America and it got its name because when several vulture species will gather around a carcass, the King Vulture is the first to feed and will chase all the others away. With the exception of the condor, the King Vulture is the biggest vulture. Here's a closeup of the colourful head.

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Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), here's a much better picture. They are one of the few bird species who use tools, they crack ostrich eggs with stones. Apart from eggs, they eat just about anything: carrion, plants, insects and even faeces. They are common in Africa and there is a small population in Europe.
Depictions of Egyptian vultures were used as hieroglyphs and they were sacred birds.

See what else V stands for with ABC Wednesday

Photos were taken at Tierpark Berlin (Griffon and Monk Vulture), Zoo Frankfurt (King Vulture), Zoo Hannover (Egyptian Vulture) and Burgers Zoo (Turkey Vulture).

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Nature Notes: Schwarze Berge

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This Sunday the snow was fresh and the sun was shining, so we decided to take a trip to the Wildpark Schwarze Berge, a zoo near Hamburg that keep animals native to Europe in huge enclosures.

We got to see wild boars
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lynx
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brown bears
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and wolves
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and a gorgeous view over the surrounding countryside
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Nature Notes is hosted by Michelle over at Rambling Woods

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

ABC Wednesday: U is for Urchin

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A sea urchin has attached itself to the glass of its tank with the help of its tube feet. If you ever have the chance to encounter one in the wild or in a touch pool at the zoo, hold your hand close to it and it will explore your fingers with those feet (it tickles a bit). Here's a closeup The feet are used for walking and for passing food along to the mouth, the round thing you can see just in the middle. It's called an Aristotele's Lantern, because he described it and compared it to a lantern.

The name comes from an old name for hedgehogs, urcheon. They are related to sea stars and sea cucumbers and feed on algae, sea weed and other plants. If you live near the ocean or have spent a vacation there, you may have found the skeleton (called a test) of a sea urchin:
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(source: Wikipedia
Or you found a sand dollar, the test of various sea urchin species that are extremely flattened to accommodate their burrowing lifestyle.
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The spines of a sea urchin can be very painful when you step on an urchin or when it's attacked by a predator, like a Sea Otter, but otherwise they are harmless to humans. Some urchins have very broad spines that they use like feet, some can dig with them. Apart from the spines, sea urchins have so-called pedicellaria, small pinchers between the spines that are used to clean the surface of the urchin and, with some species, they contain a toxin in case of attack.
Here's a very cool BBC video on sea urchins, including a closeup of an eating sea urching and a mass of live sanddollars:

click here if video doesn't work.

What else does U stand for ? Find out with ABC Wedneyday

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

ABC Wednesday: T is for Tapir

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This is a South American or Brazilian Tapir (Tapirus terrestris). They are about 2m long and have a shoulder height of 1m. At that size, Brazilian Tapirs are the largest land mammals in South America and have few predators - jaguars are known to hunt tapirs and crocodiles will prey on them, too.
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Tapirs live secretive lives in the dense rainforest and prefer to keep close to water if there is some in their habitat, they will often seek refuge in the water when something startles them. They can swim very well, but are also surprisingly quick on land.
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The snout is very mobile and can be used to grasp small twigs, to dig in the earth and of course for smelling, it's common to see tapirs moving their snout around to be able to smell better, especially when bulls are following the scent of a female, this is called the Flehmen response and looks like this
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The babies of all Tapir species look like wild piglets, with stripes and spots that make them invisible in the undergrowth. The mother is pregnant for 13 months and gives birth to a single baby. Tapirs can reach an age of 25-30 years.
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They feed on plants, fruit and berries and will follow existing trails in search for food. Tapirs that live near a river or lake will feed on water plants and may even dive to get at them. Like pigs (to whom they are related) they like to wallow in mud to cool off and to get rid of parasites. Edit: I stand corrected - they are not related to pigs, as The Language Hammer pointed out in the comments.
Tapirs are hunted for their meat and skin, but the biggest threat for them is the destruction of their habitat. I have the sad feeling that I've written this phrase in almost all of my animal portraits. If you want to do one thing for the many animals depending on rainforests as their homes, avoid oil palm products - large areas of rainforest are destroyed to make way for oil palm plantations.
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What I like most about Brazilian Tapirs are their ears - look at those cute white eartips. The ones at Hagenbeck, where I took all the photos, also like to be scratched and will bliss out when you get to the right spot (one in particular will even start to drool).

What else does T stand for? Find out with ABC Wednesday

Monday, November 22, 2010

ABC Wednesday: S is for Spotted Thick-knee

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The Spotted Thick-Knee (Burhinus capensis) is a tropical bird that is common in the south of Africa. They belong to the Stone-Curlew or Dikkop family .
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Spotted Thick-Knees are nocturnal and feed on insects, lizards and even small mammals. They nest on the ground and will always lay two eggs, the chicks are able to follow their parents right after hatching.
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They can reach an age of 20 years, even in the wild, and will stay mostly in one place for all their life. They may migrate over a distance if heavy rains flood their habitat, but will return after a while.

Photos taken at Frankfurt Zoo (adult with chick) and Duisburg Zoo
What else does S stand for? Go to ABC Wednesday and find out.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

R is for Red Panda

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The Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) is not really related to the Giant Panda, but it has got its name due to the fact that it also eats mainly bamboo. It's about the size of a big cat and it can climb extremely well, going down a tree head-first is no problem.

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Another similarity to the Giant Panda is the false thumb that allows it to grasp bamboo stalks and other food. The "thumb" is a bone extension of the wrist

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The are most active during the night and around dusk and will spend the day sleeping in hollow trees or stretched out of a branch.
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Even if you have never seen a Red Panda at a zoo or in the wild, you may have encountered one in Kung Fu Panda The Red Panda Network is a great resource for more information about this beautiful animal. They are protected in their natural habitat, but the species is still listed a vulnerable on the Red List and it's threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. Even though they are successfully bred in zoos and captivity bred red pandas have been released into the wild, they won't stand much of a chance until their natural environment is better protected.
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Photos were taken at Hagenbecks Tierpark (red panda in the snow) and Tierpark Berlin (all others).

What else does R stand for? Find out with ABC Wednesday