Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Nature Notes: Christmas Walk


Christmas was white - white with fog. Snow nowhere in sight, but a lot of flowers for December. This bush is supposed to bloom in winter:

but this rose sure isn't

the shell of a white-lipped snail (Cepaea hortensis)

Nature notes is hosted by Michelle at Rambling Woods

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

World Bird Wednesday: Sun Conure

Sun conures (Aratinga solstitalis) are medium sized parrot with striking plumage and a loud, piercing voice. I'm not kidding about the voice.

They are native to the north and east South America, where they live in savannahs and forests. They feed on seeds, nuts, flowers and a variety of fruits and berries. Usually they are found in flocks of up to 30 birds who forage for food together. The calls are only heard during flight. A pair probably stays together for life and will raise three to five chicks each year. As juveniles, sun conures are green.

Sun Conures are popular pets - they look gorgeous, they are intelligent and inquisitive and bond with their owner easily. However, make sure you know what you are getting into. As all parrots, sun conures need a lot of entertainment or they grow bored, which results in screaming, feather plucking and other problems. Keeping a pair or a group of them is most natural for them, interacting with humans is fine but can never replace the company of another parrot (of the same species!). Even in ideal conditions, parrots are never quiet or won't make a mess - it's just what they do. Be sure that you can live with that.

A major threat for wild sun conures is being trapped for the pet trade, often the whole population in one region is trapped. The majority will die during transport, even before they reach a pet shop.
Check for parrot rescues near you, sadly many parrots are given up for adoption or are just abandoned when their owners grow bored or find out what they got themselves into with a parrot as a pet. Sun conures can live for 25-30 years in captivity.

Internet Bird Collection
Honolulu Zoo
Sun Conure Parrots
Conure Community

ABC Wednesday: X is for Xenopus

Xenopus means strange foot. These guys are Xenopus laevis (smoooth strange foot), African clawed frogs. They are often mixed up with African drwaf frogs when sold as pets, Xenopus grow much, much bigger, so take care when planning to get either species. The easiest way to tell the difference are the feet: dwarf frogs have four webbed feet, Xenopus have only webbed hind feet. If it's an albino, it's a Xenopus. Also, these frogs can live up to 25 years, so it shouldn't be a spur of the moment decision (well, not pet should be that).
photo via Wikipedia, note the claws on the hind feet

They are completely aquatic, very good swimmers and will eat almost anything. Since they have no tongue, they use their hands to shove foot into their mouths or just suck it in. They also have no ears, but can sense vibrations with lateral lines. Those also pick up the vibrations made by the frogs when they call during mating season.

Xenopus frogs shed their skin once every year and will eat the discarded skin, which looks very strange. The species has been a popular research subject for many years and at times, they were used for pregnancy tests, the hormones in the urine of pregnant women will cause Xenopus females to produce eggs themselves.

More Xs at ABC Wednesday

Sources and further reading:
Wikipedia (German)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Nature Notes: Badger and Berries

even badgers have bed hair, it seems (Meles meles)

brown bear

alpine ibex (Capra ibex)

fallow deer (Dama dama)

not sure what this is

Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi)

Nature Notes is hosted by Michelle at Rambling Woods

Photos were taken at Wildpark Schwarze Berge, Hamburg. The Chinese lantern I found in my backyard.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

ABC Wednesday: W is for White-Eye

A Montane White-Eye (Zosterops poliogastrus), a sparrow-sized bird species native to Africa (Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenia and Sudan). They feed on nectar, fruit and berries and the occasional insect.

They have a soft voice and sing beautifully, you can listen to them here. Since they become tame very fast, they are popular cage birds, as are other species of white-eyes.

There's actually not much known about this species (there are eight subspecies) or about white-eyes in general. From what I have seen at Hagenbecks Tierpark, where I took these photos, it seems that pairs stay together even outside the breeding season and they are very affectionate. They don't seem very aggressive towards others, I've seen three or more birds cuddle together. After I took the photos of this pair, a third bird came and snuggled up to them, which they didn't seem to mind at all.

More Ws at ABC Wednesday and more birds at World Bird Wednesday

Sources and further reading:
Internet Bird Collection
Bird Life

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

World Bird Wednesday: African Jacana

Jacanas are also called lily trotters for their habit of walking around on the big leaves of water lilies, which you can see here. This one is an African Jacana (Actophilornis africana), native to much of Southern Africa.

They feed on invertebrates they pick up from the leaves and the water surface. They can swim and dive very well, even chicks can already stay underwater for a while, with only the tips of their beaks showing. Flight is not the jacana's strong suit and African jacanas even lose all flight feathers when they molt.

A female mates with multiple males, lays eggs in their nests and then leaves the male to care for the eggs and the chicks, while she guards the territory. If eggs are lost, she will return to lay additional ones. The nest is a rather flimsy platform made from plants that floats on the water or is placed on top pf floating vegetation. The male leads the chicks when they have left the nest (which they do quickly) and guards them for 40-70 days.

African jacanas are social and live in large groups that forage together. They have a variety of calls and when threatened, they raise their wings to look bigger and more threatening. Predators are such animals as otters, snakes and water mongoose.

More birds at World Bird Wednesday

Sources and further reading:
San Diego Zoo
Ouiseaux Birds
Internet Bird Collection
South Africa Venues

The photos were taken at Hagenbecks Tierpark.

ABC Wednesday: V is for Viscacha

This is a Plains Viscacha (Lagostomus maximus), one of five Viscacha species. They are rodents, native to South America - the Plains Viscacha lives in the Pampas of Argentinia and Paraguay, the other species in the Andes.
Viscachas are closely related to chinchillas, but they are much larger, only slightly smaller than a hare and weighing up to 9 kilos.

Planis Viscachas build burrows they hide in during the day and they go foraging at night. They live in groups of mostly females with their offspring, with few adult males who keep watch over the group. A litter of two babies is normal, but there can be up to four.

Here's a video of the incredibly agile Southern Viscacha. Note the long eyelashes they have in common with chinchillas, those protect the animal's eyes from wind and sand and allow it to keep its eyes as open as possible (although it doesn't look that way).

My Viscacha photos were taken at Wilhelma, Stuttgart.
More Vs at ABC Wednesday

Sources and further reading:

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

ABC Wednesday: U is for Unau

A Unau is a two-toed sloth (Choleopus didactylus). The Choleopus family has two species, the other one is Hoffmann's two-toed sloth), and both species have two toes on their forefeet, but three on their hind feet. You can see this very nicely here

Three toed sloths have three toes and three fingers. There used to be other sloth families, but they all died out (like the ground sloths). All sloths are native to the rainforests of Central and South America.

Unaus eat mainly leaves and that's the reason why they lead such a relaxed, slow life. Leaves are not very nutritious and so the sloth doesn't do much to conserve the little energy it gets from its food. Their stomach has multiple compartments and their gut flora contains a host of bacteria that help with digesting the leaves.

They are more active than the three toed sloths, though, and can be quite aggressive when threatened. Those claws are not only good for hanging from branches all day long. But usually they are not even spotted by predators, a sloth is very well camouflaged. Their fur often contains cyanobacteria and turns green, making the sloth even more invisible. Some sloths even are host to moths, who probably feed on the bacteria.

Sloths are very good swimmers, but they can only crawl along when they come down to the ground. They do that once a week or so to visit a midden where they bury their faeces. It's possible that they do that to avoid making any noise that would attract predators - during the rainy season they don't bother climbing down to defecate and the rain would definitely cover any noise that makes.

Sloths give birth to one baby and the mother carries it around with her for almost a year, although the baby will be weaned after only a month, feeding on leaves the mother already chewed at first and then finding leaves on its own. Mature at three years, Unaus can reach an age of 30 years. They are not considered threatened, since they are widely distributed - but considering the rapid destruction of the rainforest, I'd say it's only a question of time.

More Us at ABC Wednesday

The sloth photos were taken at Wilhelma, Stuttgart.
Sources and further reading:
Wikipedia Unau
Wikipedia Sloth
Chou Ai, Sloth Health Centre
BBC News

World Bird Wednesday: Southern Screamer


Crested or Southern Screamers (Chauna torquata) are birds that are, unlikely as it seems, related to ducks. There's a hint of webbing between their toes and other similarities. They live in South America, in swamps and estuaries, and they are good swimmers, but prefer to stay on dry land. They are also excellent fliers.

Crested Screamers feed on seeds, grass, leaves and the occasional insect. They live as pairs and stay together for several years, possibly for their whole life (which lasts about 15 years in the wild and twice that in captivity). A pair raises 2-8 chicks every year who leave their parents when they are around three months old.

Like all screamers, they have bone spurs on the inner side of their wings that they use for defence and in fights for females.

More birds at World Bird Wednesday

Photos were taken at Hagenbecks Tierpark
Sources and further reading:
Woodland Park Zoo
Internet Bird Collection

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

ABC Wednesday: T is for Turaco

a White-Cheeked Turaco (Tauraco leucotis)
Turacos are a family of African birds, usually with brightly coloured plumage and a fancy crest of feathers on their head. There's a group that is also known as go away-birds due to their habit of giving warning calls that sounds like go away and all turacos are fairly noisy birds.


They feed mainly on fruit and leaves, with insects as an occasional part of their diet. Turacos are important for many trees because they don't digest the seeds and so help with spreading them.

a Guinea Turaco (Tauraco persa)

A turaco's plumage gets its vivid colouring from two copper pigments that are only found with turacos, turacoverdin and turacin.

Turacos have a way of jump-gliding through the branches that looks very peculiar and it's a good first step to identify them. They can fly, but prefer to jump or just run. They also have a flexible third toe that can either face forward, to give the birds a better grip when perching, or backwards to make it easier to run along branches. You can see a bit of that in this video.

I don't have a photo of my favourite turaco species, the red-creasted turaco, but here's a video of those beautoful birds.

More Ts at ABC Wednesday and more birds at World Bird Wednesday

Sources and further reading:
Turaco Society
Internet Bird Collection

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

World Bird Wednesday: Shama

Shamas are also called magpie-robins, I think it's easy to see why. This is a female White-Rumped Shama. The male is below:

These birds are native to Southeast Asia and their preferred habitat are bamboo forest, where they forage for insects on the floor. They will occasionally take fruits and berries as well.

They are very territorial, possibly with males and females each defending their own territory outside the breeding season. During courtship, the male displays his tail feathers for the female and sings. Males sing throughout the year, females only during breeding season. Shamas have a very melodious voice (listen here) and are also known to imitate other birds. The first recordings of a bird song (and of animal sounds in general) ever made in 1889 was of a white-rumped shama.

A pair will raise one, sometimes two clutches of 3-5 eggs per year, with the female incubating, but both parents feeding their young. Juveniles look similar to females and they can hunt for their own food when they are about 26 days old.

All my photos were taken at Burgers Zoo in Arnhem, where the walk-through Mangrove enclosure houses a pair of very relaxed shamas.

More birds at World Bird Wednesday

Sources and further reading:
Honolulu Zoo
Natural Sounds - on the history of nature recordings
Internet Bird Collection

ABC Wednesday: S is for Sea Squirt

Sea squirts are also knows as ascidians (from their scientific name Ascidiacea). They are invertebrates, tubeshaped animals that attach themselves to rocks and feed by straining water through their body. In the photo, you can see the two siphons they use for that.

What makes them especially remarkable is their development from egg to adult animal. The larvae are free-swimming, they have a tail, a primitive eye, a notochord and a nerve cord with a small brain - they look strikingly like vertebrate embryos. With vertebrates, the notochord is eventually replaced by the backbone. Sea squirts have no need for all this once they have chosen a place to settle down and so they lose the tail with the notochord, almost all sensory organs and their brain.
an illustration from Ernst Haeckel's wonderful book "Kunstformen der Natur"

Sea squirts either live alone or in colonies and they almost all are hermaphrodites, they have both male and female sexual organs. Those living in colonies are often able to reproduce asexually as well, growing little buds that turn into new sea squirts.
Despite being invertebrates, they are counted among the Chordata,like mammals, birds, fishes ect. It's very possible that animals just like them were the link between invertebrates and vertebrates. You can see photos of a sea squirt larva and its development here

See what else S stands for with ABC Wednesday.

Sources and further reading:
Hannover University

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Nature Notes: Bittersweet

Since you were all so helpful last week with my unknown flower, I remembered a plant I found a while ago. The fruit look a lot like chilis, I opened one up and the seeds are very similar as well.
Here are the leaves. I didn't get a photo of the flowers, but they were small and purple. If you know what this is, let me know :)

Edit: John identified the plant for me, it's Bittersweet, Solanum dulcamara, a member of the nightshade family.

And a sunset:

Nature Notes is hosted by Michelle at Rambling Woods

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

ABC Wednesday: R is for Roadrunner

A Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) at Burgers Zoo. They are instantly recognisable bird, not just because of their cartoon counterpart. Roadrunners are cuckoos, but unlike other species in this family, the roadrunner much prefers running and walking to flying. They are capable of flight, though, and they are the fastest running birds who still can fly. 17mph seems to be a comfortable speed for them, the fastest roadrunner has been clocked at a speed of 24mph.
Roadrunners feeding on insects/invertebrates and some fruits and berries, but they will also prey on small reptiles and snakes, rattlesnakes in particular. It's also not uncommon for them to sneak up on other, smaller birds. Here are photos of a roadrunner stalking and killing a cowbird on The Birdchick's blog.

A pair stays together after mating and raises their chicks together. There's usually a clutch of 4-9, sometimes up to 12 eggs, but unless it's a very good year, only the chicks who hatch first survive. Any runts are often thrown out of the nest or even eaten by the parents.

Sources and further reading:
Desert USA
Wikipedia, German and English

More Rs at ABC Wednesday and more birds at World Bird Wednesday

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Nature Notes: Late Bloomers

I don't know what this is, I just know I didn't plant or sow it

Nicandra seed capsules - I sowed those in the spring, the plants all died and then others grew that had sowed themselves last year

the primula I bought in the spring, I'll try to bring it over the winter

I thought this was buckwheat, but the leaves are lance-shaped

and some leaves and seeds/fruit I found in the backyard

Nature Notes is hosted by Michelle at Rambling Woods