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