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Circus of the Spineless 48: Cabinet of Curiosity

Welcome to the 48th edition of Circus of the Spineless, a blog carnival dedicated to insects, arachnids, molluscs, crustaceans, worms and most anything else that wiggles, crawls or flutters!  As the Circus nears the half-century mark, I feel privileged to be hosting for the first time.  As always, I’ve learned a lot from this month’s excellent submissions, and I hope you will too.  I’m sure you’ll agree that nothing compares to invertebrates when it comes to stimulating curiosity and interest in the natural world.  So without further ado, here are the posts, each introduced by a quote or image that I dusted off from the cabinet of scientific curiosity.  Enjoy!

John at Kind of Curious tells us how the arachnid book lung evolved from that of the horseshoe crab.

Roberta at Wild About Ants shares some great photos and educates us about the life history of honey pot ants.

There’s the question of, why did I pick ants…? Why not butterflies or whatever? And the answer is that they’re so abundant, they’re easy to find, and they’re easy to study, and they’re so interesting. They have social habits that differ from one kind of ant to the next. You know, each kind of ant has almost the equivalent of a different human culture. So each species is a wonderful object to study in itself. In fact, I honestly can’t… understand why most people don’t study ants.

- E.O. Wilson, in Nova’s “Lord of the Ants” broadcast

Susannah at Wanderin Weeta embraces the Valentine’s Day spirit with a study of Copepods in Love!


Steve at Blue Jay Barrens has been following a population of Edwards’ Hairstreak (lycaenid) butterflies for over 20 years and was lucky enough last spring to discover a cluster of pupae being tended by their ant protectors.

The Lycaenidae offer an unusual opportunity to examine how herbivore enemies influence the evolution of larval diet. The association of lycaenid butterflies with ants is generally perceived as a protective measure against larval and pupal enemies, particularly parasitoids, an extremely common aspect of lycaenid life histories….. Six of the 10 subfamilies associate with ants, and to the extent that these groups are natural, there is a notable distinction in generic diversity between vascular plant-feeding groups with and without ants. The two plant-feeding subfamilies of lycaenids associated with ants have diversified to 368 genera, while the three non-ant groups contain only 24 genera….. The Lycaenidae represent nearly 40% of all known butterfly species…yet the ecology of their extraordinary ant relationships is not generally appreciated.

- Peter Atsatt (1981) Lycaenid butterflies and ants: selection for enemy-free space. The American Naturalist 118 (5): 638-654.

Ted at Beetles in the Bush goes after some endemic species and finds that Tiger Beetles Agree—It’s Hot in Florida!


Jill at Count your chicken! We’re taking over! finds a monster land snail during her trip to Trinidad and Tobago. Fortunately, it doesn’t appear to be the invasive Giant African Snail, Achatina fulica, that was recently found in Trinidad.

…[T]he Amerindians of Tobago itself and neighbouring islands had quite different names for Tobago. Two of these have been recorded in the documentary sources. In the 1620s the Spanish writer Vázquez de Espinosa noted that « Tobago is called Urupaina in the Indian language, meaning big snail », adding that the island is « inhabited by Carib Indians, who used to ravage the island of Trinidad » (Espinosa 1942, p. 57). In the mid-seventeenth century Tobago is indeed reported to be inhabited by Amerindians ethnically belonging to the Cariban-speaking Kalina, i.e. Caribs who formerly lived also in North Trinidad and still inhabit parts of the Orinoco Valley and the Guianas (Boomert 1986, p. 14 ; Pelleprat 1965, pp. 36, 83-84). This would suggest that the name Urupaina represents a Cariban word. If so, it may be related to oruape, a generic term documented in 1789 as the Kalina word for « large snail » (Anonymous 1928, p. 221). Consequently, it can conjecturally be suggested that, like the Spanish, the Kalina Indians were struck by the characteristic contour of Tobago, seen from the ocean, which reminded them of the outlines of the large marine gastropods to be found in the Caribbean.

- Arie Boomert (2001) Names for Tobago. Journal de la Société des Américanistes 87: 339-349.

Michelle at Rambling Woods updates us on how this winter’s weather may be affecting the overwintering Monarchs.

Discover showcases the work of Massachusetts-based photographer and naturalist Samuel Jaffe, who takes stunning pics of caterpillars. The Discover gallery focuses on clever tricks of camouflage and other defensive maneuvers. You can also check out more of Samuel’s amazing photos at his Pbase site, by clicking through from the photo below.

David at The Atavism talks about finding a hungry robber fly in his parents’ yard.

Winged Highwaymen.  Without a doubt one of the most rapacious creatures is an insect that scarcely knows fear or caution, and that is ever ready to pounce upon a possible victim, no matter what the odds may be.  This most daring highwayman of the insect world is the robber-fly, or Asilus.

-Samuel Francis Aaron, from  “Winged Highwamen”, an article appearing in the “Nature and Science for Young Folks” department of St. Nicholas magazine September 1903, pp. 1034-1036.

Zen at Neurodojo wonders if crayfish can feel electricty?


And finally, be sure to check out the Circus of the Spineless site, home to this wonderful Carnival, then head over to Xenogere, and submit your posts to next month’s host, Jason!  Thanks for stopping by!

A note on copyright. Unless otherwise noted by a copyright or license attribution, it is my understanding that the artwork reproduced in this post is in the public domain.  The copyright status of the literature quotations may vary, but I share these quotations here in the spirit of scholarly inquiry and scientific understanding.  It is my goal to bring together the art, words, and photos of talented individuals from different times and places in the common enjoyment and appreciation of nature.  I have been careful to attribute each quote to its author, and I realize no financial or commercial gain from the appearance of this material on my web site.  It is my view that this constitutes fair use of the quoted material from each source.  However, if you believe that any quote in this post violates the terms of a copyright that you hold or represent, please notify me and I will remove it.

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Naturalist's Library: Bright Wings

Earlier this winter, I received a copy of a new anthology of bird verse called Bright Wings: an Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds.

Published by Columbia University Press, the book is edited by former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins and features the paintings of well-known illustrator David Sibley.  The compact, duodecimo volume (about 7 1/2 by 5 3/4 inches) weighs in at 268 pages, packing a lot of poetry into a small package.  The book contains 113 poems, selected by Collins and arranged in taxonomic order by bird subject, along with 58 David Sibley plates.

Collins has long been one of my favorites, because his work is incredibly accessible and imaginative without sacrificing depth, nuance, and technical proficiency.  My copies of Sailing Alone Around the Room (2001) and Nine Horses (2002) are especially well-worn.  But what surprised me when I heard about Bright Wings was that as much as I enjoy reading Billy Collins, I’ve never thought of him as a nature poet.  When Collins’s poems deal with nature, they often do so through an oddly-shaped keyhole of imagination.  It is the poet’s creation, rather than the original external image, that is most memorable in his work.  Rather than channel nature in all its force with the mystical lyricism of a Mary Oliver, he chooses the seemingly ordinary moment or scene and sends it spinning off headlong into an internal litany of thought and image that, more often than not, somehow finds a way to settle down into the profound.  So it was with great curiosity that I opened Bright Wings to find out how this unique poet approached the task of compiling a book of bird poems.  My hope was that this collection would be much more than the usual trotting out of “classic” avian verse.

In the book’s introduction, Collins lives up to expectations by summarily bashing the “school of wistfulness” that so aptly describes much Romantic bird poetry of the 19th century.  “[A] reader of nineteenth-century poetry,” he writes, “might get the impression that poets are incapable of seeing a creature with wings without yelling ‘Hark!’”  In the name of a fresh approach,  Collins disclaims his omission of “many of the obvious choices” with “no editorial regrets”.  This will be a collection, the editor assures us, that will shine light on some relatively unknown poets, and will lean toward the contemporary, toward the undercutting of tired conventions, away from the sentimental wistfulness of the Romantics.  In support of his point, the only poem included in its entirety in the introduction is “The Swan at Edgewater Park”, a poem by Ruth Schwartz in which the beauty of a swan that inhabits filthy urban waters is compared to that of a young mother with a dead-end job and a dysfunctional relationship.  It’s not often that swans and used condoms are invoked in the same image.

But this book is no mere showcase of counter-convention.  Some standards are included, like Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”, Keats’s “Song”, a couple of selections from Dickinson, and Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”.  Chaucer, Whitman, Wordsworth, Tennyson, the Brownings, Emerson, and Thoreau are all represented by single selections.  While these add context, contemporary poets supply the real meat of the anthology.  Mark Jarman has three poems included here, all of which I enjoy because they manage to be very good poems without sacrificing accessibility or ornithological accuracy.  “Chimney Swifts” is my favorite: “To them, there are two worlds – / The soot-thick shaft and the silky bowl of sky.”  For astuteness of observation, John Updike’s “Seagulls” stands out to me: “A gull, up close, / looks surprisingly stuffed. / His fluffy chest seems filled / with an inexpensive taxidermist’s material / rather lumpily inserted.”  There are also some lesser-known gems to be found here.  “The Cardinal” by Henry Carlile is spare and efficient, but miraculously just-right for anyone who knows the bird: “He shocks us when he flies / like a red verb over the snow.”

The plates are watercolors, found on left-hand pages facing a corresponding poem.  One annoyance for the seasoned naturalist is that the bird illustrated in the facing plate does not always match the bird being described in the poem.  For instance, Elizabeth Bishop’s fine poem “The Sandpiper” is clearly based upon a Sanderling, a denizen of ocean beaches.  The plate used is a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, which prefers turf farms and plowed fields in migration, and would never be found on a beach!  In most cases the mismatch is pointed out in the plate caption with a statement such as “The Great-crested Flycatcher in the poem is a more modest-looking bird than this spectacular Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.”  For those readers not familiar with the birds, this may not be a problem, but for me, the mismatched plates are a bit of a distraction from my mental image of the poem.  Still, the paintings are mostly compelling, and Sibley fans will enjoy a certain looseness of form in these watercolors, freed as they are from the strictures of painstaking field mark illustration that Sibley’s field guide plates are known for.  While a small handful of the illustrations (American Coot, Brown Pelican, and Ring-necked Pheasant) miss the mark, many more are excellent (Turkey Vulture, Lesser Yellowlegs, Cliff Swallow, Cedar Waxwing, to name just a few).

The book’s final poem, “Rara Avis” by southern California poet Brendan Constantine, is included as a sort of coda of counter-convention, and can only be described as bizarre.  Constantine is an acclaimed “guerilla poet” and this poem derisively describes a series of reported behaviors of “the birdwatchers” upon being interviewed: “When interviewed, the bird watchers ate crow. / When interviewed the bird watchers refused / to discuss themselves, preferring to debate / recent observations of the Dope Warbler, / the Spoon Tailed Ninny, the Royal Bavarian / Snack Rail…”  It gets worse.  “When interviewed, the bird watchers turned / on each other.  It was ugly, like a stoning.”  After 39 lines of increasingly unlikely and deranged behaviors on the part of the bird watchers, line 40 reads simply, “The birds could not be reached for comment.”  Other than offending birders, I’m still not sure I get what Constantine is going for here, but I think I see why Collins chose to include the poem.  It’s a wry and forceful reminder that despite the thousands of words we spend describing them, classifying them, longing to be like them, and generally getting worked up over them, we sometimes forget that the birds themselves are, after all, the story.  And they aren’t talking.

With Bright Wings, Collins hits his mark, bringing us a fresh and thought-provoking anthology.  Many of the included poems use the avian moment to pick a lock on something uniquely human, and once that door is opened, the poem slips readily over the threshold.  This makes the anthology only partly a celebration of birds for what they are, and partly a vehicle for introspection for us, through so many avian mirrors.  There are many fine poems here, and the book should earn a space on the shelf of any naturalist with an abiding interest in literature.  If that naturalist is a closet poetry connoisseur, so much the better!

Bright Wings is available from Columbia University Press.

Also, you may want to swing by The Well-read Naturalist for John Riutta’s take on the book, or check out Corey’s review at 10,000 Birds.

Title: Bright Wings: an Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds
Editor: Billy Collins
Illustrator:David Allen Sibley
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Date of publication: November, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-231-15084-2

Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

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Out of Hibernation!

Stretch….  Yawn….  Is spring here yet?  Just in time for groundhog day, I’m coming out of my recent cyber-hibernation on The Modern Naturalist blog.  What have I been up to during the past couple of months?  I’ve been busy traveling, spending time with family, and working on some writing projects.  December included an amazing birding trip to Colombia that will be the subject of some photo-laden posts in the very near future!  I also managed to spend some more time in the South Carolina Lowcountry, and even squeezed in a brief run for some prime Snail Kite viewing in the Everglades.  January has been full of reorganization, adapting to my new Mac computing world (yes, I finally took the plunge), and getting to work on several new projects.

Today I want to share with you a fascinating story from Science Daily on how the invasive reed Phragmites australis manages to suppress other wetland plants by taking advantage of the biochemical activities of native plant roots and native microbes in the soil.  Apparently, “Phrag”, as it is known to those of us who are all too familiar with it, releases larger-than-usual amounts of compounds called gallotannins, which are initially harmless.  BUT, when enzymes produced by microbes in the root zone of the soil (as well as by the roots of some native wetland plants) get hold of the gallotannins, they convert them to toxic gallic acid.  The gallic acid actually destroys the structural integrity of plant roots by breaking down the tubulin protein that helps keep the roots rigid.

Unlike many other examples of allelopathy, the chemicals secreted by the invasive Phragmites don’t do the damage themselves, but take advantage of enzyme activity already present in the soil of native plant communities!  How fortuitous for the invader!  What isn’t known yet is how the invasive strains of Phragmites are themselves able to resist damage from gallic acid present in the soil.  Research like this is revealing that complex underground warfare between plants is much more common (and more fascinating) than we once thought!

The research, conducted by investigators at the University of Delaware, was published in the December 2009 issue of the journal Plant Physiology.  You can download the full PDF here.

For more information on Phragmites, the threats it poses to wetland ecosystems, and its identification and control, check out the Plant Conservation Alliance’s Phrag page or download a free copy of my publication, Mistaken Identity?  Invasive Plants and their Native Look-alikes: an Identification Guide for the Mid-Atlantic.

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I and the Bird #113

Welcome to the 113th Edition of I and the Bird!  I hope you enjoy your visit.

For this edition of I and the Bird, I decided to see what quotations from verse and literature would be invoked by the various submissions that I received.

In the spirit of several earlier IATB efforts that made use of found poetry (Dave Bonta and Liza Lee Miller come to mind) and quotations (Clare Kines did a nice job with this too), here’s what I put together this time around.  Mind you, it’s not easy to find literature relating to some of these species, so its quite a mixed bag, with sources as diverse as our contributors!

Coincidentally, while working on this post, I received a copy of a new anthology of bird poems, Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds, edited by Billy Collins, and illustrated by David Sibley.  I’ll be posting a review of this volume here soon – stop by next week to check it out.

T & S at Walk The Wilderness posted stunning photos of Grey Heron and other waders.

So heavy
is the long-necked, long-bodied heron,
always it is a surprise
when her smoke-colored wings

open
and she turns
from the thick water,
from the black sticks

of the summer pond,
and slowly
rises into the air
and is gone.

Mary Oliver
from “Heron Rises from the Dark, Summer Pond”

Christian at Christian Artuso: Birds, Wildlife submitted a great overview of the major groups of frugivorous birds.

In huckle-berry fields I see the seeds of berries recently left on the rocks where birds have perched.  How many of these small fruits they may thus disseminate!

H.D. Thoreau
Journal.  Aug 2, 1860

Greg at Greg Laden’s Blog reports on a Golden Eagle sighting in Minnesota.

He wheels about burning
in the red sun
climbs and glides
and doubles back upon himself
now over ocean
now over land
high over pinwheels stuck in sand
where a rollercoaster used to stand

soaring eagle setting sun
All that is left of our wilderness

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
from “Seascape with Sun and Eagle”

Duncan at Ben Cruachan pays a call to the reed warblers and others at Flooding Creek.

high noon -
the reed-warbler sings
to the silent river

Koboyashi Issa

Amber at Birder’s Lounge features a flicker and a sapsucker, among other birds from her Missouri trip.

His bill an auger is,
His head, a cap and frill.
He laboreth at every tree, –
A worm his utmost goal.

Emily Dickinson
from “The Woodpecker”

Bronwen at A Snail’s Eye View was lucky enough to catch a displaying riflebird on camera!

I’m woken by the rifle bird’s song -
some notes I know well.

Geoffrey Lehmann
from “The Rifle Bird’s Song”

YC Wee at the Bird Ecology Study Group Blog submitted Walad Jamaludin’s stunning photos of Whitehead’s Trogon.

But a trogon’s natural instinct is to sit on a branch, deep inside
the green-leafed tree with the berries & hold pefectly still & upright -
its long slaty tail wavering ever so slightly in the breeze.  Or
to rise & flap against a backdrop of white sky, where just as you try
to grasp the brilliant & quick presence of it, it disappears.

Marcia Southwick
from “A Portrait of Larry with Trogons”

The Ridger at The Greenbelt encountered a large flock of robins and waxwings.

They love to party. Sometimes they get so drunk

on overripe berries they keel over
and then have to sleep it off.
The branches they flocked on bobbed and sagged, and the air
was full of their gleeful gibberish.
Not one of them weighed more than an ounce.

Jonathan Aaron
from “Cedar Waxwings”

Jan at Jan Axel’s Blog presents a gallery of hummingbirds from the western highlands of Panama.

…through our woodbines, wet with glittering dews,
The flower-fed Humming-bird his round pursues;
Sips, with inserted tube, the honied blooms,
And chirps his gratitude as round he roams.
While richest roses, though in crimson dress’d,
Shrink from the splendour of his gorgeous breast;
What heavenly tints in mingling radiance fly;
Each rapid movement gives a different dye;
Like scales of burnish’d gold, they dazzling show,
Now sink to shade – now like a furnace glow!

Alexander Wilson
from “Dawn (The Humming-Bird)”

Rick at Aimophila Adventures describes an interesting apparent hybrid sapsucker.

The elder took the lid off a little round basket.
After he had opened up five nested one inside the another,
he presented him with feathers for his wings.
Oooooooooh my!

Then he gave him tailfeathers too.
Then he shaped him with his hands.
He colored the upper part of him red.

Then he said to him,

“Now, my little grandson, you should go.
This is why you have been with me.”

Then we went back out,
and then he flew,
and then he did the same thing as before.
He clutched the tree,
and then he struck it with his beak.

from a Haida myth about the Sapsucker
from STLUUJAGADANG [The Qquuna Cycle, § 2.3]
Skaay of the Qquna Qiighawaay
In Robert Bringhurst. A story as sharp as a knife: the classical Haida mythtellers and their world.  U. of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 1999.

Summer at Foovay’s Cauldron features a Cassin’s Kingbird, and discusses the birds she has traded since moving west.

The whole world is a green clock
ticking away. We stop at a line of

poplars. A kingbird skims a branch,
waving the white handkerchief of his spread

tail. …

Kyoko Mori
from “The Slowness of Trees
(for my mother)”

Esther at Esther Garvi recounts birding adventures in Niger, including the gorgeous Abyssinian Roller.

Of a changeful hue, now green, now blue,
Like the breast of the ocean are thy plumes,
And lands remote have heard thy note
Break the stillness deep of their forest glooms;
And year by year though comest here
In the gentle spring and the autumn-tide…

from “The Song of the Maltese to the Roller”
H.G.A.
In Charles Henry Poole.  A Treasury of Bird Poems. Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, & Kent, London, 1911.

Jo at J.M. Oudesluys recollects her “spark bird”, the European Starling!

In this month of rains,
On a drying road where the poplars march along,
Suddenly,
With a rush of wings flew down a company,
A multitude, throng upon throng,
Of starlings,
Successive orchestras of wind-blown song,
Whirled, like a babble of surf,
On to the roadside turf -

Ford Madox Ford
from “The Starling”

Mike at 10,000 Birds just returned from an enviable adventure in Jamaica.

Save one little Tody, in brilliant green,
With delicate hues of a glossy soft sheen,
Who answered the Toucan in accents demure :
“Your beak is a wonder! but don’t be too sure,
It cannot be equalled or even excelled
By birds, my good sir, whom you never beheld!”

from “The Toucan, Hornbill and Green Tody”
R.M. Ingersley
In Charles Henry Poole  A Treasury of Bird Poems. Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, & Kent, London, 1911.

Andy Gibb at Andy Gibb: Twitching with Transformation got reacquainted with Eurasian Tree Sparrows on a recent outing.

Behold, within the leafy shade,
Those bright blue eggs together laid!
On me the chance-discovered sight
Gleamed like a vision of delight.
I started—seeming to espy
The home and sheltered bed,
The Sparrow’s dwelling, which, hard by
My Father’ house, in wet or dry
My sister Emmeline and I
Together visited.

William Wordsworth
from “The Sparrow’s Nest”

Amila at Gallicissa shares some lovely photos of peacock, storks, prinias, babblers and other birds.  Oh – and mammals too!

Each turquoise and purple, black-horned, walleyed quill
Comes quivering forward, an amphitheatric shell
For his most fortunate audience: her alone.

David Wagoner
from “Peacock Display”

Dave at Dave Ingram’s Natural History Blog reminds us to participate in Cornell’s Project Feederwatch.  The bushtits coming to his feeder are reminder enough for him.

This wee bird has no distinction—past
a tiny probing bill small as a thistle seed—
other than intent companionable merriness
as he makes his flitting circuit trailing
clan from apple tree to suet, fir and oak.

Deb at Stoney Moss
from “Bushtit”

Susannah at Wanderin’ Weeta reports on the “gardening” behavior of a flicker.

when I look up from
my mind I see what
you are: feather-hooded,
mustached, gripped
to the steady perch;

an idea of the lower
altitudes sparged
with color, a tuber
of claws and wings
and an eye unmarred.

Michael Collier
from “Common Flicker”

Connie at Birds o’ the Morning is ready to welcome back her snowbirds!

Listen! listen! hear them call,
While the snows around them fall;
Searching now for seeds so small,
Swinging on the brown weeds tall.

Bless these birds in slate and gray;
We will watch them ev’ry day,
For no fear of snow have they.
Do you know what Juncos say?

There are eight species of this common Snowbird within the limits of the United States but nearly all are found on mountains white with snow. Our Juncos come in September and remain until April and the cheery, hardy visitor is very welcome. During the coldest days they will come to the house or barn for food, for hunger makes them very brave, but they usually remain in vacant lots and gather their harvest from the weeds.

from ABC of Birds
Mary Catherine Judd
A.W. Mumford, Chicago, 1916.

Seabrooke at The Marvelous in Nature has been spending some time appreciating her feeder birds too, Chickadees included.

Hardy, active, social, a winter bird no less than a summer, a defier of both frost and heat, lover of the pine-tree, and diligent searcher after truth in the shape of eggs and larvae of insects, preeminently a New England bird, clad in black and ashen gray, with a note the most cheering and reassuring to be heard in our January woods…

John Burroughs
from “Birds and Poets”

John at Kind of Curious uses a Eurasian Eagle-Owl to tell us a little something about owl eyes.

Come out and hear the owls shout
In the still and dewy night-hour;
The moon a fading white flower
Hangs low, with mists about.

Like pale moths, along the hedge
Withering bindweed lies;
Night looks in with hollow eyes,
Dim at the window-ledge.

Rose Arresti
from “Owl-Light”
In Charles Henry Poole  A Treasury of Bird Poems. Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, & Kent, London, 1911.

Jason at Xenogere shares some great photos of several sparrow species.

O quick quick quick, quick hear the song-sparrow,
Swamp-sparrow, fox-sparrow, vesper-sparrow
At dawn and dusk.  Follow the dance
Of goldfinch at noon.

T.S. Eliot
from “Cape Ann”

Dan at Migrations discusses speciation vs. creation in a birding context.

In their habits I cannot point out a single difference; — They are lively inquisitive, active run fast, frequent houses to pick the meat of the Tortoise, which is hung up, — sing tolerably well; are said to build a simple open nest. — are very tame, a character in common with the other birds: I imagined however its note or cry was rather different from the Thenca of Chile? — Are very abundant, over the whole Island; are chiefly tempted up into the high & damp parts, by the houses & cleared ground.

I have specimens from four of the larger Islands; the two above enumerated, and (3349: female. Albermarle Isd.) & (3350: male: James Isd). — The specimens from Chatham & Albermarle Isd appear to be the same; but the other two are different. In each Isld. each kind is exclusively found: habits of all are indistinguishable.

Charles Darwin
from Darwin’s Ornithological Notes.
Nora Barlow, ed. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History). Historical Series Vol. 2 No. 7. LONDON: 1963

Nate at The Drinking Bird posts his thoughts about revitalizing bird clubs for a new generation.

The first annual report of the Brush Hill Bird Club gives a list of thirty-seven bird clubs, located chiefly in New England. The annual report of the National Association of Audubon Societies gives a list of twenty bird clubs affiliated with the National Association. Mr. Ernest Harold Baynes, who has been the prime factor in this movement, has organized about sixty bird clubs; so that there are probably about one hundred bird clubs to be found in the United States.

The organization of a bird club enables those interested in birds to work more effectively than would be possible individually, and many people who are not acquainted with birds are interested in the opportunity for doing public service through the conservation of valuable birds. Interest may be aroused by having some one deliver a lecture on birds. A club may be organized at the close of such a lecture. Details regarding the methods to be used are given in Mr. Ernest Harold Baynes’s “Wild Bird Guests.”

One interesting result of these bird clubs has been the effect upon the communities in which they have been organized. Frequently a feeling of indifference to bird life has been changed to one of enthusiasm for bird-protection. In some cases the club has served as a center of general interest for the whole town and has been a means of arousing a community spirit.

from Gilbert H. Trafton.
Bird Friends: a complete bird book for Americans.
Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1916

The next I and the Bird (#114) will be hosted on 12/3/09 at The Life of a Bird Tour Leader.  Please contribute your submissions and pay a visit.

A note on copyright. Some of the works quoted here are in the public domain, while others may be protected under copyright.  I share the limited poetry quotations in this edition of I and the Bird in the spirit of bringing together the art, words, and photos of talented individuals from different times and places in the common enjoyment and appreciation of birds.  I have been careful to attribute each quote to its author, and I realize no financial or commercial gain from the appearance of this material on my web site.  It is my view that this constitutes fair use of the quoted material from each poem.  However, if you believe that any quote in this post violates the terms of a copyright that you hold or represent, please notify me and I will remove it.

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Critical Moment for Conservation on Farmland

I apologize to my readers for the delay since my last post: it’s been a very busy few weeks.  But more on that later.  First, I want to issue a last-minute alert on a very important conservation issue with a swiftly approaching deadline for public comment.  The deadline for public comment on this is Monday, October 19th, 2009.

What’s the issue? In short, the Farm Services Agency is accepting public comments on the environmental impact of two possible policy alternatives for the Conservation Reserve Program, an important mechanism for protection of wildlife habitat and biodiversity on working farms.

Here’s a little background.  The CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) is a land retirement program administered by the Farm Services Agency (FSA), and implemented by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  Basically, the government pays eligible farmers an annual rental rate for taking cropland or certain marginal pastureland out of production and keeping it that way for the life of the CRP contract (10-15 years).  In addition, farmers receive a cost-share assistance payment for “practices” they install on the enrolled acres, including wildlife habitat plantings, erosion control, riparian buffers, etc.

With more than 33 million acres enrolled in CRP nationwide, the program has become an important tool for conservation of biodiversity in agricultural landscapes.  Grassland birds, insect pollinators, quail and other upland game birds, and many additional species use CRP land.

Now, however, the number of acres enrolled in CRP is likely to be threatened by the economic reality of our times.  With corn and cellulosic biofuel production receiving considerable economic and political support, CRP rental rates are unlikely to be high enough for farmers to maintain land in the program.  The “opportunity costs” of CRP, i.e. the potential earnings for biofuel production, are increasing.  I wrote about this issue in a previous post, Biofuels and Habitat Loss, which also provides further background on CRP for those of you who are unfamiliar with the program.

At the same time that biofuels are threatening to reduce CRP acreage via economic competition, FSA is considering (see Alternative 2 below) reducing the CRP acreage enrollment cap from 32 million acres (the cap authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill) to 24 million acres, a full 25% reduction.  Alternative 2 also cuts the acreage cap for so-called targeted enrollment programs by a combined 50%.  These programs include state partnerships like the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and State Acres for Wildlife (SAFE), as well as Continuous CRP, as well as special initiatives.  All of these programs are enhanced versions of CRP that allow targeted enrollment for particular wildlife species or habitats, including species of conservation concern.

Alternative 2 would also nix plans for a separate pollinator habitat practice under CRP.  This is challenging because it means that standard cost-share rates for existing practices would have to be used for pollinator habitat creation, a practice that is generally significantly more expensive (due to high plant materials costs) than other traditional conservation practices.

You can review the public meeting slide presentation prepared by GeoMarine, Inc. here. The following comparison of alternatives is taken from this presentation.

CRP Alternatives

I just spoke with an FSA representative who informed me that, while the two alternatives are currently being presented as two discrete alternatives covering all the provisions, those providing comments should feel free to voice support for either alternative in each provision.  In other words, if you agree with Alternative 1 for several provisions, but Alternative 2 for a few other provisions, you can state that in your comments.

Please take a few minutes to provide your comments on this important issue at the comment page on the GeoMarine, Inc. web site.  Wildlife that depends on our agricultural landscapes is depending on you to make your voice heard.

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New Eagle Regulations: Misunderstood?

A recent New York Times piece on the new US Fish and Wildlife Service Bald and Golden Eagle regulations made the rounds on Twitter last week.  The reception of the new rule among birders and nature bloggers seemed to be negative, but I remain puzzled as to why the birding community would have a problem with the regulations.

As much as we all love eagles, we must bear in mind that the recovery of the Bald Eagle has been an overwhelming success and that the species is once again common across large areas of its breeding range.   Because of this, conflicts between human activity and eagles are on the rise.

When the Bald Eagle was delisted, the Endangered Species Act provisions could no longer be applied (including the provisions that allowed limited “take” or disturbance under the ESA).  The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which has been on the books since 1940, was left in place, but while this act prohibited disturbance, it provided no permitting mechanism for allowing “takes” for unavoidable disturbance.  This might have been okay when Bald Eagles were truly rare, but it has now become a real problem.  The rule states:

Many actions that are considered likely to incidentally take (harm or harass) eagles under the ESA will also disturb or otherwise take eagles under the Eagle Act. Until now, there was no regulatory mechanism in place under the Eagle Act to permit take of bald or golden eagles comparable to incidental take permits under the ESA. This rule adds a new section at 50 CFR 22.26 to authorize the issuance of permits to take bald eagles and golden eagles on a limited basis. The regulations are applicable to golden eagles as well as bald eagles. We will authorize take of bald or golden eagles only if we determine that the take (1) is compatible with the preservation of the bald eagle and the golden eagle and (2) cannot practicably be avoided. For purposes of these regulations, ‘‘compatible with the preservation of the bald eagle or the golden eagle’’ means ‘‘consistent with the goal of stable or increasing breeding populations.”

-Federal Register Vol. 74, No. 175 Friday, September 11, 2009. Rules and Regulations. 46837.

It is worth noting that the original USFWS proposal for this rule in 2007, during the Bush administration, interpreted the statutory mandate of “compatible with the preservation of” as being fulfilled by adhering to a national standard of 0.54% or less annual decline in populations.  Thus, the change to a goal of “stable or increasing” populations in the final rule is a significant turnabout for the agency, and one that makes much more sense for the long-term conservation of eagles.

The permitted take of Bald Eagles will initially be capped at 5% of estimated annual productivity, a conservative figure to be sure.

Adult Bald Eagle by Hart_Curt on Flickr (Used by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License)

Also, while the Times article pointed out that, unlike Bald Eagle populations, Golden Eagle populations are declining, it failed to mention that permitting under the new rules for Golden Eagles would be very limited, at least initially.

For golden eagles west of 100 degrees West longitude, including in Alaska, we will initially implement this rule only insofar as issuing take permits based on levels of historically authorized take, safety emergencies, and take permits designed to reduce ongoing mortalities and/or disturbance. Future projects seeking programmatic permits would need to minimize their own take of golden eagles to the point that it is unavoidable and also reduce take from another source to completely offset any new take from the new activity….  For golden eagles east of 100 degrees West longitude, we will not issue any take permits unless necessary to alleviate an immediate safety emergency. We do not have enough data on rates of golden eagle mortality in the eastern U.S. to issue programmatic take permits.

-Federal Register Vol. 74, No. 175 Friday, September 11, 2009. Rules and Regulations. 46840.

Additionally, the new rules create a permitting process for the take of active and inactive eagle nests.  Take of an active nest would only be allowed in the rare case of “genuine safety concerns” such as nests at airports, or unstable nest trees that may threaten to fall on a residence.  Inactive nest take permits, however, could be issued “when necessary to ensure public health and safety”, or when the nest interferes with the operation of a human-engineered structure (such as a nest built on a crane).  Finally, an inactive nest take permit may be issued when the activity provides a net benefit to eagles or otherwise mitigates the impact of the take.  This provision could allow, for example, an unavoidable take of an inactive nest in an eagle territory, in exchange for the donation of a conservation easement protecting the habitat on the remainder of the territory.

In general, the new regulations seem sound and conservative, a good balance of conservation science and understanding of the growing need to conduct human activities in close proximity to eagles.  If you would like to read all of the details for yourself, you can read the entire 45-page final rule as recorded in the Federal Register.  The new rule goes into effect on November 10, 2009.

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Southern Spiders #2: The Green Lynx

Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans)
Family: Oxyopidae

Lynx spiders (family Oxyopidae) are some of my favorites.  They’re big, charismatic, and colorful.  The family is a distinctive one with only 3 genera and 18 species in North America.  Lynx spiders have prominent, long, straight spines on the legs, and a characteristic hexagonal arrangement of the eyes (which is somewhat visible in the second image below).

During my recent South Carolina field work, I frequently found the Green Lynx Spider (common throughout the south) on vegetation in open pine savannas and meadows.  These sit-and-wait predators do not spin a web, but use their long forelegs to capture prey items.

Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans) on Yellow-fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris)

Late summer is the mating season for these spiders. Females build egg sacs, which they attach to the plant substrate, sometimes protecting the egg sac by constructing a tied-leaf shelter around it (Willey & Adler 1989). Some, but not all, females guard the egg sac against predation until the young emerge (about 2 weeks). Spiderlings emerge from the egg sacs in autumn and overwinter as early instars, before reaching maturity the following season (at around 300 days).

Eye arrangement and leg spines of Lynx Spiders (Oxyopidae)

Lynx Spiders feed on both herbivorous insects and pollinating insects, so the benefit to a flowering plant of hosting the spider is unclear, with reductions in herbivory potentially offset by reductions in pollination and fruit set. Some species of Peucetia in the neotropics live and forage exclusively on plants that bear glandular trichomes.  Studies indicate that when prey is scarce, the spiders eat dead insects that adhere to the sticky trichomes.  The presence of the spider reduces rates of herbivory on the host plant without having a significant impact on pollination (Romero et al. 2008).  Thus, the relationship is thought to be a facultative mutualism.  Studies of the Green Lynx Spider, however, indicate that Hymenoptera and Diptera (potential pollinators) are the most frequently consumed prey items (Randall 1982, Willey & Adler 1989), and that the spiders often forage on plant blossoms, so this species may not improve fitness of its host plant.  Indeed, my observations of the species in the field have been primarily on blossoms, where it might be expected that pollinating flies and wasps would be the chief prey.

Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans) on Starry Rosinweed (Silphium asteriscus)

References Cited:

Randall, J.B. 1982. Prey Records of the Green Lynx Spider, Peucetia viridans (Hentz) (Araneae, Oxyopidae). Journal of Arachnology 10(1): 19-22.

Romero, G.Q., J.C. Souza, and J. Vasconcellos-Neto. 2008. Anti-herbivore protection by mutualistic spiders and the role of plant glandular trichomes. Ecology 89(11): 3105-3115.

Willey, M.B. and P.H. Adler. 1989. Biology of Peucetia viridans (Araneae, Oxyopidae) in South Carolina, with Special Reference to Predation and Maternal Care. Journal of Arachnology 17(3): 275-284.

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Quick eBird Entry Tips

As fall migration kicks into full swing, I find myself accumulating bird checklists from various forays into the woods, fields, and marshes.  The sheer magnitude of the fall flights are always fascinating, so I try to get out as much as possible during this time of year.

These days, I seldom go birding without taking detailed field notes that include counting individuals and species at each location.  I religiously submit these records to Cornell’s eBird program.  While I admit that I was one of the doubters when eBird was in its infancy many years ago during my undergraduate years at Cornell, I’ve long since become a big fan of what eBirding adds to my birding experience.  Nate over at The Drinking Bird did a nice job of detailing how eBird makes him a better birder, and I agree with everything he says about the ways that eBird can make local birding far more interesting.  For me, the satisfaction of knowing that my bird observations are being contributed to a massive pool of data that is channeled directly into the Avian Knowledge Network is reward enough.  All of the listing, data viewing, and data manipulation toys that eBird provides are just icing on the cake.

The only problem is that too often, rather than finding their way into my eBird account, my checklists languish for months, or sometimes even years, in the depths of a stack of yellow Rite-in-the-Rain field books.  I simply lack the time to sit down and enter the data regularly.

Good news for me and for all of you other busy birders out there!  I recently checked the eBird news site and noticed a feature article that details some ways to speed up eBird data entry.  These time-saving tips include keyboard shortcuts for using the Jump to Species box so that you needn’t scroll up and down the checklist searching for the proper place  in which to enter numbers for a species.  (This is an especially useful hint for those of us who may have never taken the time to read the directions in the first place and have been hunting-and-pecking our way through the checklists with mouse and keyboard).  The Jump to Species box is not quite as cool as a Jump to Conclusions mat, but much more useful.

eBird Jump to Species Box Data Entry Screenshot

If you’ve never used eBird, I encourage you to give it a try!  If you’re a regular user, check out the aforementioned data entry tips on the news page to increase your efficiency and get more of your sightings into the system!  And be sure to stop by the eBird blog!

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The Moth and Me #5

I can’t tell you how excited I was when I found out that Seabrooke Leckie of The Marvelous in Nature and the North American Moths had started a blog carnival about moths.  Mothing is all the rage these days, and websites like the North American Moth Photographer’s Group, Bugguide, and Butterflies and Moths of North America have made it easier than ever to identify North American moths by photograph.

The Moth and Me is a carnival that provides a place for bloggers, moth-curious and moth-obsessed alike, to gather and share photos and stories of our adventures.  Despite the interest expressed by several bloggers with respect to the carnival, the response to Seabrooke’s photo quiz in the last edition was, well, underwhelming.  That, and the fact that she’s been involved in a move this summer has meant a slight delay in the publication  the 5th instar, er, installment, of The Moth and Me.  I wanted to help by hosting this brand new edition, complete with a plea for submissions from all of you closet moth photographers hiding out there in the new moon night of the nature blogosphere.  Check out the sweet banner you could have on your site right now!

Barefootheart at the Willow House Chronicles helped promote the last edition of this carnival (The Moth and Me #4) with a post that featured an observation of Virginia Ctenucha.  It would be great if more nature bloggers followed suit and took up the cause!

You see, if you don’t submit your posts, Seabrooke and I have to hunt you down and feature your post anyway.  And we don’t like doing that (we’d rather be mothing and we’re afraid we’ll miss some great posts).  If moths are a new interest, the first step is taking some pictures of them and getting a post up.  If Mike at 10,000 Birds could take a break from blogging about birds (and incinerating a giant fowl) to post some excellent photos of the Moths of Chicken Inferno 2009, you can surely post some pictures of moths from your porch light!

One of the great reasons to study moths is the thrill of seeing new species on a regular basis.  Natural Notes saw a striking Clymene Moth for the first time and posted a nice photo here.  The number of species of moths that most of us can find at our back porch light far exceeds the number of species of birds that come to our feeder or visit our yard, so there’s seldom a shortage of beautiful new species for those willing to look.

John at A DC Birding Blog took the time to look at (and photograph) some Assorted Recent Moths.  Tom at The Ohio Nature Blog did too, in his post titled The Biodiversity of Moths.  Tom captured one of my favorite moths, the Arched Hooktip.  If you check lights regularly in the northeast, you’re likely to see this species.

Arched Hooktip by Tom Arbour at the Ohio Nature Blog

Arched Hooktip by Tom Arbour at the Ohio Nature Blog

Doug at Gossamer Tapestry featured a late-night stakeout for the rare Leadplant Flower Moth and also shared with us a visit to that mecca of all things insect, the Magic Gas Station.  Keeping with the theme of looking for leps at other people’s lights, Susannah at Wanderin’ Weeta dared to explore the unknown reaches of the map outside of a country motel in Here be moths.  Her picture of a Glorious Habrosyne succeeded in shivering our lepidopterological timbers.

Glorious Habrosyne by Wanderin Weeta

Glorious Habrosyne by Wanderin' Weeta

“Field guides? Field guides?  We don’t need no stinking field guides!”  Eric of Bug Eric (he of Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America fame) explores pelage for camouflage in More moth fashions.

As we move into September, Brian at Calderdale Moths, Butterflies and Dragonflies reminds us that September 18-19, 2009 is National Moth Night in Britain.  This event encourages moth enthusiasts to observe moths across the country!  For more information, check out the official National Moth Night site.  Those Brits are way ahead of us in their work on insect conservation, and moths are no exception!  Martin’s Moths has featured lots of great moth posts lately, including this Rosy Rustic and a moth-related beer he discovered!  Jim at Norfolk Moths recently tested a unique method of transporting his trapping gear (and beer) to the field site.

Jim Wheelers Mothing by Bike setup at the Norfolk Moths Blog

Jim Wheeler's Mothing by Bike setup at the Norfolk Moths Blog

Another Brit, Rob Laughton, has recently started a gorgeous moth blog called Urban Moths.  Go check out his latest, August Moth Trapping, Part II.  If you haven’t had enough UK moths yet, check out Ben’s Essex Moths, which features photo-illustrated trapping reports.  I’m sure I’ve missed some of the great blogs on the British mothing scene, but hopefully they’ll submit posts to the next edition.

Now, for those of you who think that mothing requires late nights of sitting up bleary-eyed in front of a glorified tanning bed lamp, or roaming the  dark woods trying to figure out exactly which tree you painted the rotten banana-and-beer slurry onto at dusk, you’re only partially right.  Some moths are day-fliers!  Among the coolest of these are the hummingbird moths or clearwing sphinx moths of the genus Hemaris, featured at Robin’s Nesting Place.

Most caterpillars are moths in waiting (it takes some time and effort to eat that much), and you can find lots of them in broad daylight, when normal people are known to be awake.  In fact, rearing caterpillars in captivity is an important way to procure voucher specimens and establish hostplant relationships.  Nuthatch at Bootstrap Analysis takes us through raising silk moth and sphinx moth caterpillars in 100 hungry mouths to feed.  Martin of Nature in the Ozarks features a Cecropia Moth caterpillar and adult, while Seabrooke adds to the caterpillar frenzy with a nice image of a Banded Tussock Moth cat at The Marvelous in Nature.

Finally, I leave you with a photo of a stunning Sphinx moth caterpillar that I was lucky to encounter on my recent trip to South Carolina.  I’ll be featuring a few caterpillars, including another Sphinx species in an upcoming post right here at The Modern Naturalist.

Banded Sphinx (Eumorpha fasciatus) caterpillar on Ludwigia

Banded Sphinx (Eumorpha fasciatus) caterpillar on Ludwigia by Matthew Sarver

Thanks for reading The Moth and Me!

The upcoming edition: September 15, 2009
Submissions in by: September 13, 2009
Submissions to: sanderling [at] symbiotic [dot] ca or Host TBD

Interested in hosting the Moth and Me on your blog?  Sign up by contacting: sanderling [at] symbiotic [dot] ca

Happy Mothing!

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Southern Spiders #1

I don’t know about you, but I love spiders. While here in South Carolina, I was lucky to find and photograph several common and attractive species.  This is the first installment in a series of posts in which I’ll highlight these species for the enjoyment of all of you arachnophiles out there!

Lined Orbweaver, Mangora gibberosa
Family: Araneidae

The Lined Orbweaver is a common spider that is widespread throughout the eastern United States.  In the southeast, it is especially abundant in grassy pond pine (Pinus serotina) savannas like the one shown below.

Pond Pine Savanna, Colleton County, SC

Strung among the grasses throughout the savanna are small, white, silken rings that are conspicuously evident against the sea of yellowish-green vegetation. Upon closer examination, the white ring is at the center of a larger orb-web, the rest of which is invisible from a distance. The white part of the web is called the stabilimentum, a structure found in the webs of many species of orb-weavers (Araneidae).

Lined Orb-weaver Web

The purpose of the stabilimentum has been debated among arachnologists for a long time. Hypotheses range from prey attraction to camoflauge for protection from predators to warning signals that keep megafauna from accidentally destroying webs.  Phylogenetic work suggests that web-decoration with stabilimenta evolved several different times in many araneid lineages (Scharff & Coddington 1997).

My personal observations of the Lined Orb-weaver indicate that, in this species, one use of the stabilimentum is as a refuge from potential predators. When the web is approached closely or bumped, the spider quickly runs to the opposite side of the web from the intruder and hides behind the stabilimentum, which is sized perfectly to conceal the body of the spider.

Lined Orbweaver in web

How well this works, however, is open to debate. Bruce et al. (2005) tested the visibility of stabilmentum silk to birds and bees. They found that in one of their study species, the chromatic contrast between the spider and the silk was significant enough that the stabilmentum probably provided inefficient camoflauge from avian predators at close range.  It’s also possible that, since they are visible to bees and other insects, the small, discoid stabilimenta of the Lined Orb-weaver may attract prey to the web by mimicking flowers.

Whatever their adaptive significance, the sight of dozens of these small, silken rings dotting the vegetation is a fantastic experience for the naturalist willing to look closely. The spider responsible for the web is pretty cool-looking as well!

Lined Orbweaver

For a nice review of the literature on this topic, check out Matt Bruce’s web site on web decorations.

Citations:

Bruce, M.J., Heiling, A.M., Herberstein, M.E. 2005. Spider signals: are web decorations visible to birds and bees? Biology Letters 1: 299-302.

Scharff N, Coddington J.A. 1997. A phylogenetic analysis of the orb-weaving spider family Araneidae (Arachnida, Araneae). Zool. J. Linn. Soc. 120: 355–424.

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