April 16, 2009

Throwing Pooh for Love

I got your attention with that header, didn't I? Yep, it's a little something called marketing writing.

Just about two weeks ago, I got up early and drove to Layton in order to see newly arrived sandhill cranes on a field trip with the Wild Bird Center. These beautiful birds winter in southern states (like retired RVers) and return to Utah to mate every spring (I have no idea whether retired RVers do this as well, but, if the trailer is a rockin'...).

Ick, let's get that image out of our minds. Instead, let's talk about Your (graceful yet goofy) Bird of the Week, the Sandhill Crane.

Fact: The sandhill crane is a large bird, standing as tall as your average 4th grader (about 3 to 5 feet). It sports a slate gray body, black legs, red forehead, and white cheeks.
Fact: The sandhill crane has some serious booty, with large, tufted feathers on its rump known as a "bustle."
Fact: The sandhill crane often colors its gray feathers during mating season, preening iron-rich, red mud through its feathers for a stained, rusty appearance. (It brings to mind a bad dye job on...hate to say it...retired RVers.)
Fact: The sandhill crane can be found in high altitude marshy areas and meadows, especially where cows graze.
Fact: The sandhill crane is the oldest known bird species still in existence. A fossil in Nebraska from about 10 million years ago is structurally identical to the cranes we know and love today. Maybe that's why cranes look like pterodactyls in the air.
Fact: The sandhill crane isn't just old as a species, individual birds also live a very long time--up to 20 years in the wild.
Fact: Sticking around that long may be one of the reasons that these birds mate for life. Once paired, a sandhill crane couple rarely leave each other, migrating back and forth from wintering grounds to mating grounds.
Fact: Despite the fact that they've often "been there, done that," cranes still perform mating rituals to woo each other in the spring. They have loud, chortling unison calls. And, then there is their famous mating dance, which is what I was hoping to see in Layton. I didn't, but there are plenty of good videos out there.

Fact: A lesser known mating ritual is the one I referred to in the title of this post. In meadows where there are lots of cow pies, sandhill cranes will often pick one up and fling it in the air, scattering dried pooh and dung beetles around the meadow. A crane will then select a particularly juicy beetle and offer it to its mate. Ahhh.
Fact: All of this must get pretty complicated, because the sandhill crane won't typically mate until it is at least 2 years old (sometimes not until it's 6 or 7).
Fact: If all goes well, that romantic dancing and pooh-flinging will ultimately result in one or two chicks. They are pretty damned adorable (looking like downy dinosaurs) and need a lot of care from their parents for the first year or so. In fact, the whole family stays together through winter migration.

This has been Your Bird of the Week.

P.S. I recently purchased a scope from Bill Fenimore at the Wild Bird Center! And, I might experiement with a little digiscoping in the coming months. Who knows, maybe some day I can stop stealing photos off the Internet!

Photo credits: International Crane Foundation

April 4, 2009

It's Business Time

Humans are complicated. At least the sexual part of us is. We have morals and phobias and self-esteem issues. Missed cues and misinterpreted words. Needy kids and late-night television. It's kind of amazing we actually manage to do it once in a while.

That's why I like seeing birds in spring. There's no guessing in the avian world. Take a look around, and you realize that all of them have sex on the brain. Tim and I drove by a pond of American avocets the other day, and I turned to him and said: "Somebody's lookin' to get some." Once I clarified that I was referring to the birds, I explained that avocets are black and white most of the year but get a bright red streak down their necks during mating season. They look like hot and bothered teenagers after a makeout session.

As part of my springtime voyeurism, I went on a short field trip this weekend with Bill Fenimore of the Wild Bird Center in hopes of seeing the lovely sandhill crane do its famous mating dance. It didn't feel like spring, considering we were all shivering under three layers of clothing, but the birds at the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve didn't seem to know the difference. Yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds were calling, American avocets were blushing, a meadowlark was singing, northern flickers were flashing, and the sandhill cranes were croaking.

Yes, I said croaking. But it's a very sexy croak. I'll let Bill Fenimore tell you a bit more about the trip:

While we didn't see the sandhill crane's actual mating dance, as Bill mentioned, we got some very good looks at the cranes--in the sky and on land. They really are cool, kooky birds, which is why an honest-to-goodness Your Bird of the Week featuring the sandhill is on its way.

Until then, thanks to Bill, Phil Douglass of the Utah Division of Wildlife (your gloves saved me!), and my fellow birders who braved the elements.

March 11, 2009

Flicker Got Your Tongue?

We're right in the middle of a Wii boxing tournament at work right now. (Go Cameron and Doug!) After seeing a pretty vicious bird picture on Twitter, though, I decided that people are going about their boxing strategy all wrong. Sure, punching your opponent in the solar plexus works. But you could really do some damage if you could manage somehow to grab...his tongue?

Check out this National Geographic action shot of two members of the woodpecker family squaring off, and you'll see what I mean. The Northern flicker (on the left) isn't afraid of playing dirty. I just hope the red-headed woodpecker (on the right) didn't damage his tongue too much. He needs it to lick bugs out from under dead bark.

Don't feel too bad for him, though. The redhead is known as a big bully in the woodpecker family, and he often catches grasshoppers and wedges them alive into wood crevices for a "fresh" snack later.

And you thought Wii boxing was brutal.

March 4, 2009

Wish They All Could Be California Gulls

Originally sent 03/10/08

We're hitting that time at work again, when it seems like everyone is getting sick. Flu, colds, strep, icky viruses--you want it, we've got it. It made me think of a Your Bird of the Week post that went out to just a few readers (over e-mail) at this time last year. Now that I have more than 3 people reading this stuff, I figured I may as well use it again...

First, my apologies to everyone who waited with bated breath for Your Bird of the Week. My time unfortunately was consumed when I was forced to run a department devastated by a mysterious, tuberculosis-like illness. Like all biblical plagues, it struck down the vile and sinful masses and spared the few among us who are good, innocent, and virtuous.

What does this have to do with the Bird of the Week, you ask? Well, my workplace plague had me thinking of a similar incident that struck Utah not so long ago. However, the unfortunate victims of that plague were saved not by Nyquil and daytime television; no, they were saved—in every sense of the word—by birds.

Ladies and gentleman, I am pleased to introduce Your Bird of the Week, the California Gull.

Fact: Utah’s official state bird is the California gull. Although it’s a little lame to give the special title of “Utah’s bird” to a species with another state in its name, we must give our most esteemed legislators the benefit of the doubt (if only in this instance).

Fact: Why? Well, early Mormon settlers in Utah in 1848 were horrified to discover a plague of their very own. Millions upon millions of "crickets" (actually a member of the katydid family) had descended upon their crops.

This lovely member of the katydid family is now known as the Mormon Cricket.

Fact: The cricket swarms weren't just really gross, they also were eating everything in sight and threatening the newly established Mormon population with starvation.

Fact (and maybe a little lore):
The settlers surely would have been defeated, if not for an unlikely hero—the California gull. I’ll let Orson Whitney’s firsthand account (taken from the State of Utah site) give you the gory details:

“When it seemed that nothing could stay the devastation, great flocks of gulls appeared, filling the air with their white wings and plaintive cries, and settled down upon the half-ruined fields...All day long they gorged themselves, and when full, disgorged and feasted again, the white gulls upon the black crickets, like hosts of heaven and hell contending, until the pests were vanquished and the people were saved.”

Fact: Host of heaven or not, the California gull today can be found at dumps, Wal-Mart parking lots, and sewer ponds throughout our great state, saving Utahns from all matters of detritus and bugs. Yep, they’re noisy and sometimes annoying, but they continue in their dirty service.

Fact: A “Sea Gull Monument,” featuring two bronze, sculptured gulls, was unveiled in 1913 and still stands in Salt Lake City's Temple Square today.

Fact: Gulls are notorious for having many different "looks" depending on their age and region. And, I ain’t going through all of them. But fully grown California gulls are medium-sized with a yellow bill that has a black ring near the tip and a red spot on the lower mandible. Their head and underparts are white and their back is dark gray. Their legs are a yellow-green.

Fact: California gulls nest in a scrape in the sand or dirt, sometimes lining the nest with vegetation, feathers, and bones. Both the male and female take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks.

Although we have a valid reason for picking the California gull as the Utah State Bird, I have yet to hear an explanation for our most esteemed legislators picking the Colorado Blue Spruce as the state tree. Quick—send an e-mail to Sen. Chris Buttars today! I'm sure he'll have an open mind on this subject.

This has been Your Bird of the Week.

All photos: Wikimedia Commons

March 2, 2009

Birding: An Introduction

Sorry, I know I've been playing a lot of videos lately, but I couldn't resist this one. Just know that a new post is coming soon!

In recent weeks, Conan O'Brien has been wrapping up his late night show with some of his "best-of" moments. One of the segments he played was this one, in which he was introduced to birding in Central Park. Sigh, I love me some geeky comedians. What will I do when I have to choose between Dave and Conan? (Not that I usually stay up late enough to pick either, but still.)

February 27, 2009

Here Fishy, Fishy

Wow, I'm getting a lot of cool videos by following people on Twitter. This one shows a kingfisher grabbing a minnow from a stream. You remember the kingfisher, right? I think our discussion about it included something about Brad Pitt in a River Runs Through It? Not following me? Oh well, it's a very cool bird that dives headfirst into lakes and streams to catch fish. One of my favorite birds, actually. And this video shows it from the perspective of the minnow. Enjoy!

Bird Strikes Fish In Water - Watch more Funny Videos

February 25, 2009

Spring cleaning

This video from Jeffrey Gordon was just posted on Birdchick today. It's a brown-headed nuthatch cleaning up its home for the breeding season. I've got to say, a nuthatch can make just about anything look adorable, including spring cleaning. (Except for the carrying stuff out in your mouth part.) As Jeffrey pointed out, we should all be grateful for hands and mops.

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