Category Archives: Uncategorized

Not a Baby, Not Yet an Adult

‘Tis the time of year when the northern hemisphere is inundated with new “teenagers” for lack of a better term. Not a baby, but not yet an adult, the most obvious of these are the hordes of juvenile birds who, although they’ve left the nest, are still largely dependent upon their parents. Perhaps you’ve seen them fluttering their wings, big fleshy-gaped mouths open and squawking in your backyard, the local park, or while out hiking.

Juvenile House Wren. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Do you remember being a teenager? For me, it was all pimples, awkwardness, and angst. So much angst. It was like a 24-7 John Hughes marathon without the catchy soundtrack and zany hi jinks. If I were to relive any age, it would not be a double-digit number beginning with 1.

I’m sure some people would love to go back to being a teenager, though. That’s completely understandable if you didn’t have to buy groceries, hold down a job, or pay taxes. But would you ever choose to be a teenager forever? That’s less John Hughes and more Peter Pan and some animals actually do live out their lives never becoming full-adults, a phenomenon called pedomorphosis, or alternately, neoteny.

Western tiger salamander larva. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Pedomorphosis (from the Latin pedo for child and morphosis for the process of forming) means that juvenile characteristics are retained into adulthood. The best known example is probably the axolotl, a large, Mexican salamander. In Colorado, we have a close relative of the axolotl that also sometimes exhibits this ability, the Western tiger salamander (Ambystoma mavortium).

Barred Tiger Salamander
Barred Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma mavortium mavortium) from Weld County, Colorado, USA. Photo by Andrew DuBois. https://flic.kr/p/NLjL2o

In the typical life cycle of an amphibian like the Western tiger salamander, the salamander would develop from a gilled aquatic larva to a land-dwelling, sexually-mature adult. However, if conditions on land aren’t favorable–if for instance, conditions are too dry– the salamander may stay in its gilled larval form for decades until conditions change. If conditions don’t change, it may even stay a “teenager” forever, becoming able to reproduce despite not technically being an adult.

While I wouldn’t want to stay a teenager, the Western tiger salamander makes it work and is another example of the ingenuity of nature.

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Butcher Bird

Did you know that some song birds are carnivores and that their prey, including amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and other birds, may be the same size or bigger than them? If you watched the tv show Hannibal or read the book Red Dragon, you may already be familiar with the shrike.

There are over 30 species of shrike around the world, with most occurring in grasslands. They are generally dull-colored with hooked beaks suitable for snapping necks, which makes their family name Laniidae extremely appropriate (Laniidae is Latin for “butcher”). But while they’re active during the day and eat meat, shrikes lack the strong, grasping talons of raptors like hawks, eagles, and falcons. Therefore, shrikes employ an ingenious method to hold onto their prey as they eat.

Shrike larder. Remains of a Western Meadowlark. Photo by Jamie Simo.

If you’re traversing a farm field in Colorado, you may have come across a shrike cache. Perhaps it was a moth or the skull of a lizard festooning a fence-line or a sparrow hanging from the branch of a wild plum. After killing, the shrike will impale its prey on a thorn or a piece of barbed wire. This holds the food in place so that the shrike can rip off chunks at its leisure. The shrike can also return to the impaled food item later, like accessing a pantry. Caching food may allow it to survive in times of scarcity.

Northern Shrike. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Colorado is home to 2 shrike species, the Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) and the Northern Shrike (Lanius borealis). The Loggerhead Shrike can be found year-round in southern Colorado, but along most of the Front Range they’re present only in the spring and summer. They can be distinguished from the Northern Shrike, which is only found in Colorado during the winter, by a broader black mask, less hooked bill, and clean breast lacking the faint barring seen on the Northern Shrike.

Loggerhead Shrike. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Unfortunately, because of the loss of grassland and pasturage in much of the United States, as well as the decline in prey species, particularly insects, the Loggerhead Shrike is imperiled. Less is known about population trends of the Northern Shrike since it breeds far north in the tundra, but likely it too is in decline as it loses wintering habitat. This is in line with the overall decline in numbers of grassland birds across North America.

To protect these bizarre song birds and their neighbors, we must come up with more creative ways to protect their habitat.

 

 

Hip Hoot Hooray for the HOOTenanny!

Ticket booth for the 2016 Hootenanny. Photo by Jamie Simo.

It’s that time of year again: Denver Audubon’s HOOTenanny has arrived! This annual event celebrating all things owl has been expanded this year from one day to five with daily, family-friendly programs on Tuesday, September 19th through Friday, September 22nd leading up to the big festival on Saturday, September 23rd.

Learn about the little-known owl constellation Noctua! Go on a night hike! Meet rehabilitated ambassador owls from Nature’s Educators! Listen to live music and get your face painted! All programming is held at the Audubon nature center at Chatfield except for Little Hoots story time, which is being held at the Roxborough Library.

Live bluegrass at the 2016 Hootenanny. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Admission is $8 for adult members and non-member children (3-12), $5 for member children, and $10 for non-member adults. That’s pretty cheap for entertainment these days and your admission helps support the great educational programming provided by Denver Audubon.

More information, including directions to the Audubon nature center and how to register, is available on the Audubon Society of Greater Denver website.

Rest in Peace

First day with Momo. Exploring Ian’s office. Photo by Ian Cyr.

It’s taken me a few days to process, but my bunny Momo has died. She was 3 years old. Someone dumped her at Chatfield State Park just shy of a year ago and my husband and I had cared for her ever since. She was the sweetest, sassiest, smartest rabbit I’ve ever met. She had an incurable sweet tooth, was an expert at escaping from her pen, and loved to be made much of.

Momo died of something called megacolon, a genetic condition linked to her particular spotted coloring that we weren’t even aware of until she started getting really sick. Megacolon is when the large intestine is abnormally enlarged and the peristaltic movements that allow food to move through the system are severely impaired or absent. As a result, there isn’t a lot of nutrient uptake through the colon’s walls either. She became really constipated a month ago and we had her on 4 different drugs and fluid to help things move through. She was also very thin. At the end she weighed 1.7kg and change. She seemed to be getting better until last weekend when she took a turn for the worse.

We found her body 4th of July morning.

It’s very cruel to breed an animal when the traits you’re breeding into the animal harm the animal. It’s possible Momo ended up with megacolon through a random mutation and it was just a fluke, but lots of rabbits with her pattern are produced through selective breeding of English Spot rabbits in order to produce a standard for show. We need to seriously look at what we’re doing when we breed animals to produce a particular “look.”

I miss my precious girl like crazy.

Sandhill Crane Capital of the World

Sandhill Crane at Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in February 2016. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) is a large, grey bird standing between 3 and 4 feet tall with a red forehead and a rusty wash on its back and flanks. Every year, western populations make the trek from their wintering grounds in Mexico, New Mexico, and Texas, to breeding grounds in the Northern U.S. and Canada. There is also a more sedentary population in Florida.

Last spring, I went to Monte Vista, Colorado to see them on their staging grounds in the San Luis Valley. Over 20,000 cranes pass through Monte Vista in migration. While this is an impressive number, it doesn’t compare to the number I saw last month in Kearney, Nebraska.

A group of Sandhill Cranes feed in a field near Fort Kearney State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Kearney is known as the “Sandhill Crane capital of the World,” which it rightly earns as over 600,000 Sandhill Cranes migrate through the area every year. The birds are drawn to the combination of sandbars on the Platte River–an ideal roosting place to protect against predators–and the acres of corn fields nearby where they gorge themselves to prepare for their northward flight. The birds begin arriving in late February and leave in early April so the best time to see them for maximum effect is late March.

The weather was cold dreary when I went, which, according to my companions, isn’t unusual for March in the Platte River Valley. Nevertheless, it was amazing. Pre-dawn, watching the mists swirl around the birds as they begin to wake up on the river is truly a unique experience. You have to wonder what it must’ve been like for the first inhabitants of the area to see that spectacle for the first time. And watching the birds come into roost by the thousands approaches the very definition of sublime. The sky will be black with cranes swirling like leaves in a tornado and the sounds of their cries is deafening.

Sandhill Cranes headed to the fields. Photo by Jamie Simo.

It’s impossible to miss the birds when almost anywhere in Kearney, but more dedicated observation spots include Rowe Sanctuary and Fort Kearney State Park. There are also several observation areas along the road.

The peak of crane migration may be coming to an end, but there are also tons of other great birds to see while in Kearney. Shorebirds are starting their northward migration right now, the Snow Geese are massing for their own migration, and there are still plenty of ducks in bright, breeding plumage. It’s definitely worth a trip!

Iceland Travelogue: Day 6 August 13, 2016

Today we went off-script. Although our itinerary had us driving and taking in the sights, after breakfast, I approached the man at the restaurant desk who also happened to be the captain for the boat to Grimsey. At 9am we met him, a local guide, and who I imagine was the captain’s little granddaughter, along with 3 other American travelers from New York.

28827207993_7a3550a072_o-1It was overcast, although nearly every day has been, but dry and mainly calm. Our guide, a woman named Pat, told us about Grimsey’s founding. A group of 3 trolls wanted to separate the Westfjords from Iceland and began to dig. They had a competition to see who could make the most islands.

On one side, were a couple who easily made a bunch of islands in the shallow bay, each shovelful making a mound. On the other was a female troll with her ox. It was deeper on her side and her shovelfuls only created shoals in the water. It was coming on daylight and the trolls turn to stone in the day. The couple ran to a pass and became stones there, while the lone troll turned to run, but looked back at her handiwork. Seeing no islands for her pains, she grew angry and slammed her shovel into the earth, flinging it out over the water. That shovelful of earth became Grimsey and she rests, a statue, near our hotel.

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Seastars on our boat back from Grimsey. Photo by Jamie Simo

Most of the birds have gone by now, but we still saw lots of puffins, fulmar, shags, and kittiwakes, and we were able to get very close to them. It was amazing, and I’d love to see it in spring with the razorbills and guillemots. The farmer who owns the island keeps sheep there and raises eiders for their down.  All the tires strewn along the beaches are artificial nests to encourage the ducks to stay there. We even got to see starfish, jellyfish, and a purple sea urchin.

Afterward, we had lunch in Húsavík and drove to the seal museum. Small, but very interesting. I had no idea there were so many types of seals. So far we’ve only seen Harbor and Grey. Continuing on our drive, we saw 2 humpback whales breaching and blowing in the fjord.

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Humpback whale breaching. Photo by Jamie Simo.

We ended our day in Sauðárkrókur at a historic wood hotel. It’s noisy here because the walls are thin, but there’s a hot pool outside we took advantage of. It reminds me of the medieval days, though it’s not that old.

Oh, and I finally had horse. It was good, though not as distinguishable from beef as I though it would be. Still, I can say I’ve had it.