Flora and fauna in Hyde Park

We had a lovely day of sun, rain, sleet, mini-hail pellets, strong wind, and more sun as we walked about 9 miles around and through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens in London.  Spring is well on its way here, with an assortment of wildflowers blooming and a flush of new green leaves on the trees.

A kind of Harebell was blooming under the sycamores along with some daffodils.

A kind of Harebell was blooming under the sycamores along with some daffodils.

There are dozens of Harebell (Campanula) species worldwide.  The most common ones have a circumpolar distribution, from North America through Europe to Asia.

There are dozens of Harebell (Campanula) species worldwide. The most common ones have a circumpolar distribution, from North America through Europe to Asia.

Tulips and other spring cultivars brightened up the landscape as well.

Tulips and other spring cultivars brightened up the landscape as well.

Expansive lawns of precisely groomed grass were remarkably free of birds, dogs, and people.  Who wouldn't want to walk, run, or roll on this lush carpet?  It's possible I wasn't supposed to be walking on it...

Expansive lawns of precisely groomed grass were remarkably free of birds, dogs, and people. Who wouldn’t want to walk, run, or roll on this lush carpet? It’s possible I wasn’t supposed to be walking on it…

A stray Wood Pigeon wasn't finding much to nibble on among the dense carpet of grass stems.

A stray Wood Pigeon wasn’t finding much to nibble on among the dense carpet of grass stems.  This is the largest pigeon in the UK, about 1.5 times the size of the common pigeon that we see in the US.   It’s rather attractive…for a pigeon.

Mute Swans are the native swan species of Europe.  They

Mute Swans are the native swan species of Europe. They were introduced to the US where they enjoyed great success in depleting submergent vegetation.  Their populations increased so rapidly (10% per year) that they are now treated as an invasive species in the US.

Male swans get quite aggressive toward each other at this time of year.

Male swans get quite aggressive toward each other at this time of year.

The Brits have great affection for their swans.  Killing or eating one is punishable by death (a law still on the books, but it hasn’t been enforced lately), and injuring a bird or collecting its eggs is liable to get you a £5000 fine and some jail time.

some other notable images from today…

The amazingly expansive chocolaterie in Harrod's department store.  Food is biological, right?

The amazingly expansive chocolaterie in Harrod’s department store. This is just one of more than a dozen such counters.  Food is biological, right?

An intriguing glass sculpture that resembles masses of polyps and marine worms hanging in the entrance of the Victoria and Albert museum.  I forgot to ask them what it was supposed to represent.

An intriguing glass sculpture that resembles masses of polyps and marine worms hanging in the entrance of the Victoria and Albert museum. I forgot to ask them what it was supposed to represent.

Visit with an icon of biology

At the Natural History Museum in London yesterday, renewing acquaintance with the father of evolutionary biology Charles Darwin.

Natural History Museum, London

Entrance hallway of the museum, Darwin sitting at the far end.

Darwin musing...

Darwin musing…thinking great thoughts about the relationships of the enormous collection of specimens in the museum.

the stalking crow

Crows rarely forage in my backyard — I guess they don’t like birdseed.  But the seed does attract small mammals (mice, voles, and chipmunks as well as squirrels), and there are plenty of toads (or toadlets, depending on the time of year) and usually a good supply of ground insects — all of which crows ought to like.  My backyard crows are wary birds; they typically fly off the instant they detect a camera pointed at them from my porch windows 200 feet away.

So I was surprised the other day when a crow spent a good 20 minutes strutting around through the “grass” poking into the thatch and turning over bits of wood and mulch, looking for whatever was creeping around out there.

crow foraging-

Looking forward with its binocular vision into the grass or tilting its head to the side (to listen?)… I never noticed that crows seem to have a ridge line of feathers between their eyes that sticks out and kind of gives them a unibrow.

crow foraging-

The bird spent a lot of time pulling thatch up and peering under it. I suppose there might be insects hiding under there.

crow foraging-

A curious stance, after making a grab for something that I think it missed.

crow foraging

This bird was very intent on something in this patch of thatchey grass…

crow foraging-

A quick, beak-first strike. Notice that the crow has closed its third eyelid (nictatating membrane) over its eye, probably to protect the delicate cornea from getting pierced by stray sticks.  Birds can see through this tough membrane, but their vision of course would be fuzzier.

crow foraging-

Success! There was something in the grass all right. It could have been a toad, or possibly a mouse. I can see what looks like a tail projecting from the tip of the beak.  The nictatating membrane gives the eye a bluish cast.

crow foraging-

The bird made several more attempts to grab critters in the grass, and might have been successful once or twice more, although I couldn’t see what it was taking.

Crows are amazingly adaptive animals, and will eat a wide variety of fruits, seeds and berries, as well as insects, reptiles, small mammals and eggs, even pet food.  They are ground foragers, and usually share information about food resources they have discovered with other family members.  This particular bird, however, kept its success to itself.

the good provider

It’s springtime, and romance is in the air — males showing off their physical prowess and gaudy colors, females watchful and discerning.  One of the rituals of springtime courtship among some bird species involves the male bringing some delectable, nutritious food to his female.

courtship feeding-lilac-breasted roller

The male Lilac-breasted Roller (on the right) presents his female with a small insect. (Photo shot in Botswana in October 2015)

northern shrike-courtship food

Northern Shrikes impale their prey on a sharp object like thorns or barbed-wire fences. This male shrike is leaving his gift of a fresh vole for his intended mate.  (Photo by Marek Szczepanek)

Why do some male birds do this?  Is it to show what good providers they will be for their offspring?  Is it to further cement the bond between male and female, like human males might gift their sweeties with jewelry, roses, or candy?  Or is it really an important part of their pre-nesting behavior, to increase the food/energy intake of females that will shortly undertake big expenditures of energy laying eggs and incubating them for long periods of time.  Courtship feeding might be important for all of these reasons, but most likely it has evolved in those species for which the energy demands of reproduction are particularly high in the female.

northern cardinal-

Northern Cardinal males keep a close eye on their females, and offer them tidbits of sunflower seeds, even though the female is sitting right there next to or on the feeder.

northern cardinal female-

He’s looking at her (above), and she’s looking at him, wondering what he will bring her next.

I missed the actual feeding because the pair darted behind the leaves, but it looks like this.

cardinals-Rudiger-Merz

Photo by Rudiger Merz

northern cardinal-

Females have the luxury of choice, so this male has to not only be good-looking but savvy at providing food.

Earth day — challenges and hope

It’s easy to be cynical about the multitude of challenges to sustaining life on earth, but there are promising steps toward meeting some of those challenges, and today is a good day to think about them.  As a start, check out this commentary on CNN this morning.  Efforts made to reduce the steep rise in average global temperature are happening on a variety of fronts — such as 155 countries signing the Paris Agreement on Climate Change today!

Things we worry about — illustrated by photos from past blog postings

island in Lake Superior

Warming climate, rising sea levels, disappearing coastlines…

thunderstorm

Violent weather: tornadoes, hurricanes, thunderstorms with high winds

grand-tetons-outside-jackson-wy-

Lack of winter precipitation snow pack reduces the spring/summer water flow in rivers…

Okavango delta, Botswana

Changes in rainfall and river flow impact wildlife populations

protea garden, Kirstenbosch, Cape Town, SA

Rising average temperatures that make the local climate unsuitable for plants (and animals). The Cape Floral Kingdom at the tip of South Africa is doomed if temperatures rise much because there is no more southerly retreat for them.

kauai-beach-kapaa-pool

Rising ocean temperatures coupled with increased acidity of ocean water due to higher CO2 content threaten invertebrates such as coral…

glacial-lakes-state-park

Habitat loss, as more acreage is converted to farmland, impacts wildlife and native plants, resulting in local extinctions…

MN farmland

Changes in weather patterns affect crop harvest and food production…

buffalo at Cross Ranch ND

Preserving habitat AND wildlife for future generations

Not just today, but everyday, let’s think about the global consequences of our local actions to be part of the solution to these challenges.

Courtship face-off

Male Brown-headed Cowbirds have been engaging in courtship display in the backyard this week.  Interestingly, they seem to display to each other in order to entice females closer.  This is sort of like the multiple male displays one sees at a grouse or prairie chicken lek (see my earlier post on this), and serves a dual purpose of stimulating males to perform, while giving females a chance to compare their performances and choose the “best” male to fertilize her eggs.

The sequence of alternating displays begins with first one bird and then the other puffing up, spreading wing and tail feathers and bowing to the other bird while emitting a blackbird-ish, high-pitched call note.

male cowbird courtship display-

Bird on the right begins the sequence…

male cowbird courtship display-

male cowbird courtship display-

male cowbird courtship display-

Back to neutral, bill up position…

male cowbird courtship display-

Male on left displaying in bowed head position…

male cowbird courtship display-

Another male pops in between the two displaying males — will this exhibition be a trio?

male cowbird courtship display-

I’m not sure if this is a threat display by the left-most male, but it doesn’t continue with the bow, and the middle bird took off quickly.  (Females are grayish, with some faint striping on the breast feathers.)

male cowbird courtship display-

Leaving the two original males to continue their dance…

The short video clip below by Bradley Yee illustrates the sequence of displaying male Brown-headed Cowbirds very well.

they’re back!

Leaves have popped out of swollen buds almost overnight, and suddenly, the woods are alive with newly arrived warblers flitting about.

Yellow-rumped Warblers seem to be the first to arrive in the spring and the last ones we see in the fall.

Yellow-rumped Warblers seem to be the first to arrive in the spring and the last ones we see in the fall.   Handsome males usually migrate ahead of the females.   In another week, the birds will probably be completely obscured by the leaves.

Palm Warblers were foraging in the low brush, and move a little more slowly than the Yellow-rumps, making them a bit easier to photograph.

Palm Warblers were foraging in the low brush, and move a little more slowly than the Yellow-rumps, making them a bit easier to photograph.

The first wave has arrived, and others will soon be on their way.  Spring has finally made its long-awaited appearance.

playful pups

Each morning and evening, the fox pups come out to play under the watchful eyes of their wary parents.

red fox pups-

There was a lot of scampering about in and around the bushes and twigs, making it hard to get much of a photograph of these little furry balls.

red fox pups-

Play behavior of the fox pups is like a rehearsal for future hunting tactics, as they attack the leaf litter and pounce on imaginary prey.

red fox pups-

Attacking each other is also a good game.

red fox pups-

Taking a break from all that play to rest up for the next bout.  Their fur coat is getting redder, and their legs and ears are a little blacker than when I first saw them last week.

red fox-

One small yip from this watchful parent and the pups disappeared immediately back into the burrow.  

Pups and parent were already out and active when I arrived, so I tried hiding behind a not very large tree trunk to take these shots from about 200 feet away.  I’m still hoping for some closer shots with less obstruction from little branches before the family leaves this den area.

just passing through

Another first for the backyard the other day…a pair of Purple Finches visited the sunflower feeder.  They typically breed north of me in the cool, coniferous Canadian forests, and most of the U.S. population winters south of me in the eastern U.S. in mixed woods, hedgerows, and open fields, so I rarely see them.

male purple finch

Often described as a sparrow dipped in raspberry jam or juice, the male Purple Finch has a rosy pink glow from the top of his head to the base of his tail, and in bright stripes down his breast and flanks.

Male purple finches might be confused with male House Finches, but their color is much pinker (than the red of a House Finch male), and extends much further down their body.

male house finch

A male House Finch for comparison. Brown stripes cover its flanks, and the red color is usually seen only on head, neck and breast (not the back and flanks).

male purple finch

What a handsome guy!

male purple finch

Pink everywhere — it seems hard to mistake a male Purple Finch.

female Purple Finch

Quite unlike her mate, the female Purple Finch is streaked with brown and has a thick brown stripe through the eye. Their thick bill is useful for crushing large seeds, or extracting nectar by crushing the base of flowers. In the summer, they consume a lot of insects; in the winter, mostly seeds, fruits, and berries.

breakfast at the osprey nest

I checked the osprey nest at one of the local lakes last week, and it looked like there were sticks being added to it, and one of the adults was sitting in a nearby tree.  Yesterday, I found both adults sitting in trees near the nest, vocalizing, and basking in the early morning sun.

osprey

Now that they are back in town, perhaps there will be some courtship action to be photographed.

Unlike other species of raptors, osprey partners are fairly similar in size and appearance.  Males are slimmer with narrower wings, and fainter spotting on the breast feathers, but it’s hard to tell which is which from this distance.  I am too far away, even with 400 mm of telephoto to see much detail in their feathers.

osprey

This individual sat quietly for about a 1/2 hour while the other bird went fishing.

osprey

After a quick (less than 5 minutes) round trip to the lake, this bird brought back a big chunk of fish, which it proceeded to delicately pick apart.

osprey

Nothing like fresh fish for breakfast…

osprey

That piece of fish was stuck in the talons and to the rough scales on the bottom of the bird’s foot so well that it had to vigorously shake the piece loose to transfer it to the other foot.  I wonder if ospreys are right or left-footed in their preference for holding food while eating??

osprey

The other bird had this comment to make about its partner’s meal…well, it’s always good to get rid of excess weight before going off to fish yourself.

osprey

Breakfast is over, time to get on with other daily activities, like nest building.