Who doesn’t need a shot of color during the mid-winter blah outdoor landscape of white, brown, and gray? After a monotonous week of fog and gray weather, it was time for a visit to the indoor tropical room of Como Conservatory in St. Paul, MN. Each time I go I find a few new species that have taken up residence there.
Of course I love watching birds in the backyard, but I don’t especially love what some of them do to my house. The woodpeckers are at it again, drilling holes into the redwood siding of the house and the garage. The little Downys do a lot of damage by themselves, but this morning the local Pileated Woodpecker got into the action, and started hammering on the garage with some serious blows.
A rhetorical question to ask on this — National Bird Day. They are colorful, sing some pretty (if repetitive) songs, perform amazing aerial tricks, are delicate, fierce, strong, bold, and relatively easy to find and see. Plus there is an amazing diversity of them. They are all around us and we take them for granted, but the world would be a sad place without them. This day was created to raise awareness of the difficulties many avian species face because of loss of habitat, climate changes that put them out of sync with their food supply, lethal chemical added to their environment, etc. The list of perturbations to their normal existence is long and is taking its toll on their numbers. So to honor the Birds, I showcase some of them taken from this year’s photos (some of which were sadly lost in the masses of photos that I took!).
Looking back over this year’s photos, I found some gems I had overlooked at the time they were taken. During our birding explorations of southern Spain in April-May of 2022, we visited La Dehesa de Abajo (literally, the meadow down below).
The Dehesa is a nature reserve just 15 miles southwest of Seville located within the greater 52 square miles of the Donana national park and nature park system.
Among the many wonderfully different birds we saw at the Dehesa, the European Bee-eaters were the most colorful and interesting (to me) to watch. These vibrantly colored, slender birds are distant relatives of Kingfishers, but are only found in southern and central Europe, parts of northern Africa and western Asia during the spring and summer. After breeding there, they migrate to tropical Africa for the winter.
Pairs were actively foraging for insects among the flush of wildflowers in the meadow, with males often bringing food to females, and perching near them. In fact, couples were perched everywhere — often next to each other in small groups.
European Bee-eaters are highly gregarious and nest colonially in sandy banks, into which they excavate 5-foot long tunnels for their nest. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the 5-8 offspring to fledgling. Once out of the nest, adult and juvenile Bee-eaters roost communally in long lines of birds huddled closely together.
Despite their name (and they do eat a lot of bees, wasps and hornets), male Bee-eaters catch larger items like dragonflies and butterflies to feed to their mates during courtship. We watched a pair of Bee-eaters in this ritual for a few minutes as the male made several trips to feed his mate. The first image is a composite of his flight in. The second image shows him bringing a dragonfly to her (barely visible in his beak), and the third composite image shows his departure on another foraging trip.
Although Honeybees do make up 60-80% of their diet, their collective impact on the bees in an area is minimal; studies found that they ate less than1% of the worker bees from a particular hive. Bee-eaters do remove the sting from the bee before swallowing by bashing it against a tree limb or fence post.
Such gorgeous little birds, and such fun to watch. But there is much more to see in this richly diverse area of Donana, Europe’s largest national park. More on this topic later.
This year was an amazing time of one adventure after another…as we made up for the Covid isolation period and two years of postponed trips. So many beautiful places, beautiful animals, beautiful landscapes, and amazing people that we met. Here’s a snapshot of the year in review.
(Note: if you’re interested in seeing more and perhaps better photos of any of the activities mentioned below, go to the main page of the blog: https://bybio.wordpress.com and there should be a pull-down menu for the Archives with months and years of the blog listed near the top right of the main page. Just click on the month of interest, and scroll down through the days to see more of what I have summarized here. IPhone and iPad users may have to scroll to the bottom of the main page to see the dialog boxes with the months listed.)
We’re enjoying (?) an old-fashioned, super-white, super cold holiday season here in the upper Midwest. I hope your holiday season is cheery and bright, shared with loved ones and friends, and that the New Year brings you even more joy than this past year did.
Feed the birds…they need all the help they can get!
What do these animals have in common during the fall months?
The answer to the question above is that all of these (and many more bird and mammal species) exhibit excessive consumption of food in the fall, technically becoming hyperphagic.
There really are only a few viable solutions to surviving the long, cold winters of the far north: 1) get out of town — migrate! 2) build fat stores to last you several months and sleep as much as possible, and 3) stay active to search for what little food remains, tolerate the cold, but enter a starvation state by metabolizing a lot of of your muscle (when you run out of fat).
The temporary condition of hyperphagia is brought on by decreasing photoperiod — i.e., the continually declining number of daylight hours in the transition from late summer to fall — that triggers the change in an animal’s eating habits. Fortunately, this also happens to be when food is most abundant with the ripening of seeds, fruits, excess numbers of young, naive juvenile animals roaming the countryside, etc. So food is easy to come by and fattening is easily accomplished by overeating.
To take Black bears as a good example of this strategy, consider the following comparisons of its diet and caloric consumption from summer to fall.
In the summer Black bears consume about 5,000-8,000 kilocalories per day. If food and water are restricted at this time, they break down their muscles for energy, may accumulate too much nitrogenous waste in their blood, and may die. They cannot “hibernate” at this time.
In the fall, Black bears become voracious, begin consuming 15,000-20,000 kilocalories and drink gallons of water per day, excreting 1-2 gallons of urine as they metabolize all those calories into fat stores. Then, they stop eating and enter a lethargic, hypo-metabolic state of winter sleep, in which their resting heart rate of 80-100 beats per minute falls to less than 22 per minute and their breathing slows down to 2 or 3 times per minute. For the duration of their winter “sleep” they don’t eat, don’t drink, don’t break down any muscle, and females give birth to their cubs. It’s an amazing physiological transformation.
But have you ever wondered if we humans exhibit a similar response to the waning photoperiod and colder days of fall weather? It’s true that humans cannot hibernate the way small rodents do, but could they increase their consumption of carbohydrates and fatten up in the fall and then decrease their daily activity and sleep more in the winter to conserve energy — like bears do? [Side note: carb craving in the fall is a real thing for me — how about you?]
Well, here is the answer, in an article from the New York Times written more than a hundred years ago, back in November 1906. (Click on the image to enlarge it to be readable.)
Apparently, it has been common practice in some cultures (in the past?) that face temporary periods of starvation in winter to prepare multiple loaves of substantially nutritious bread in the fall, prior to beginning a routine of reduced activity and increased bouts of sleeping during long winters. Sleeping with farm animals for warmth was encouraged, I guess.
Zagreb, capital of Croatia, is a bustling city of old and new — ornate buildings dating to its boom period as part of the Austria-Hungary empire and sleek high-rise skyscrapers built after the Balkan War. There is a lot to explore in Zagreb, and many unique dishes to try, but yesterday afternoon was the time to explore the Maksimir Park Zoo. The zoo exhibits were spacious, nicely landscaped areas with glass separating animals from humans, which allowed me to get some good close-ups. Birds from Europe and Africa were pretty well represented.
Backyard Biology is on a break until the end of August, but I highly recommend you visit the following website to enjoy the amazing photography of Grand Marais, MN photographer Paul Sundberg, as he chronicles life in a Robin’s nest from egg to fledging. What a treat!
As the worm turns…into baby birds.
From Great Basin National Park in Nevada through central Utah’s magnificent canyons and mountains, we drove on to Dinosaur National Monument at the Utah-Colorado border.
Paleontologists from the Carnegie museum discovered the fossil remains of huge sauropods here early in the 1900s, and the site was quickly designated a national monument in 1915 to preserve it for more exploration. Thousands of fossils of the giant herbivores (like Apatosaurus) and carnivores (like Allosaurus) were excavated and shipped back to the Carnegie museum in Pittsburgh.
The next day driving along the Yampa river, we saw hundreds of little black blobs crossing the highway. I thought they were rocks but the boys saw them moving, so we stopped to look.
These are the insects that decimated the crops of early Mormon settlers in Utah. They are not really crickets, but are related to katydids. As shown in the photo, they are flightless, but move quite quickly on the ground. Although these insects usually exist in low density, occasionally huge numbers are produced in the spring. As they develop into adults over the summer, they form a swarm (with densities of hundreds of individuals per square meter) that migrates over the land, consuming everything in its path to find new areas to colonize.
You know you’re entering the Midwest when you cross the Continental Divide, which we did several times as we descended the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, driving through some of the prettiest and greenest mountain meadows I’ve ever seen.
Scotts Bluff stands high above the surrounding plains and was a visible landmark for early travelers of the Mormon and Oregon trails. Later the Oregon trail went right through this pass, adding over 200,000 travelers to the westward expansion.
The next two days were simply a push for home, through the sand hills of Nebraska, which were surprisingly green and wet, then through the unending landscapes of corn and soybean fields of Iowa, and finally into the Minnesota river valley and home.