Snowy Egret on the Naples Pier

Birds do not have teeth. Even that one you're thinking of that kind of looks like it has teeth. No, not ducks either. Some birds have somewhat of a serrated bill which helps them to grip prey. Like this Snowy Egret. He deals in slimy, squirmy fishes so he must have some sort of uneven surface on the occlusal surfaces of his bill to keep the fish in check. 20160503-dscn3362

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So how do they chew their food then? They don't. Ever. They have an organ called the ventriculus (gizzard) that acts as a mechanical stomach. Two strong muscles surround and contract the walls of the ventriculus to grind and mash up food.

You might have heard that poultry birds ingest small stones to aid in digestion. True. The stones, softened by the acidic environment that precedes the ventriculus, are eventually ground down to tiny pieces that pass through the rest of the digestive tract. While in the ventriculus, the "grit" as it is sometimes called, helps provide a solid surface to create friction between the food and ventriculus thus grinding it down more efficiently.

Just because birds don't have to chew does not mean that swallowing food is always easy. Check out our Snowy Egret friend trying to manage a piece of fish.

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As if the ventriculus wasn't already cool enough, there is another organ in the avian digestive system that might be as interesting. The crop. It's a tiny pouch toward the posterior end of the esophagus where newly consumed meals and water are stored. As the crop empties and food makes its way toward the ventriculus, the bird's brain receives hunger signals telling it that it's time to eat more food.

At least, I find it cool.

Enjoy these next few photos of our egret filling up on fish.

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Makes me long for some of that halibut I ate the other night here in Newfoundland.

Listen, if you're anywhere near Naples, FL, you have to check out the pier. Especially for sunset but take what you can get. Trust me. And if you're patient, you'll probably see dolphins. Examine the photos below to see if you can find the dolphins I was fortunate enough to see.

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Caribou in Newfoundland

20160621-img_0496 Let me answer this question once and for all. Is a reindeer the same thing as a caribou? The answer is...yes...and no. It's sort of a chicken or egg situation. Only it's not, because there's a definitive answer.

Caribou, a member of the deer family, evolved in North America--specifically, what is now Alaska and the Yukon--and spread eastward. All the way eastward to Europe and Asia, where they are known as reindeer.  Potato, patahto. This whole migration took place before the last glaciation of our planet. We're talking about a world where Europe, Asia, and Alaska are still connected. Think big here. 21,000 years big.

Caribou and reindeer are the same species, yes. But, they are vastly different subspecies genetically and would not interbreed well. Because of their differing environments, they are two different beasts.

The caribou that live in almost all Canadian provinces (including Newfoundland, where I live) are called Woodland Caribou. They survived the Great Ice Age and moved into much of Canada for good ~10,000 years ago.

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The original caribou, the herds that live in Alaska northeast to Baffin Island, are called Barren-ground Caribou. There is one other subspecies called the Peary Caribou that lives only on Canada's Arctic Archipelago. And then, of course, there are reindeer.

Hopefully that cleared things up.

A quick note on antlers. The magnificent rack of antlers seen on male and female caribou grow from nothing and fall off every single year. Male caribou grow a much larger and more complex set of antlers than females starting in March every year (female antlers begin growing in May). Antlers bear a soft, fuzzy tissue called velvet during development. This tissue is basically a protein shake (more like continuous supply of blood and nutrients) for the antlers beneath as they grow and harden. Caribou (and other deer species) rub the velvet off on trees and rocks when the antlers are fully grown. A male caribou starting with tiny nubs of velvet in March may have 3-foot-long fully developed antlers by August. Just in time for mating.

Antlers fall off in late fall after the rut (breeding season) for males. Females keep their antlers until after they calve.

Wild Boars in the bayou

Before I say anything about seeing feral hogs in a Louisiana bayou, I want you to watch this quick video I took. You'll get information about the hog in the video and a very good sampler of what the bayou accent sounds like in this part of the world.

The answer to your first question: yes, the tour guide was feeding the pig marshmallows on a stick.

If you didn't watch, there was much information on how the feral hogs are hunted (with dogs). But how did they get to the bayou in the first place? Rolling the clock way back to the 1500's, we find Spanish settlers bringing pigs over to the southern US as another type of livestock. Through the centuries, escape and release of these pigs has allowed them to populate the area and become a serious problem.

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How did they become feral? Easy. They are omnivorous and opportunistic. They eat mostly vegetation but can also stomach carrion. It doesn't take much to feed them and they live in a very fruitful biome. The swamp doesn't phase the hogs because they're great swimmers (all pigs are!) and their hide is tough and lends well to water.

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Because these hogs are from a diverse stock of pig species over many years, they come in every color. They reach a weight of 200 lbs. easily but have been known to surpass 400 lbs. Since they are feral, their tusks are left untouched and become nasty weapons. Tusks, which are actually the canine teeth in pigs, can reach 3 inches (~8 cm) in feral hogs.

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Feral hogs are often seen in groups called sounders. These sounders consist of breeding age females, mothers and babies. Male hogs are generally solitary.

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Earlier I mentioned that the hogs were an issue. They're problematic for humans in two ways: 1) They can transmit diseases to humans (Swine Brucellosis), who contract it by handling or ingesting infected tissues and fluids; 2) Their rooting behavior causes damage to crops, golf courses, levees, tree farms and lawns. They will also eat baby farm animals.

To avoid contraction of Swine Brucellosis, hunters are urged to wear gloves while processing meats and to cook pork thoroughly. To address the destruction issue, hunting of the hogs via snaring, shooting, trapping and cornering with dogs has become a sport in the area. Feral hogs can have 2 litters of piglets per year at 10 piglets per litter so their population must be kept in check with hunters. Unlimited hogs may be harvested on private property.

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Just a quick note on the distinction of wild pigs. These wild boars or feral hogs do occur in Texas, however, another hunted porcine species also occurs there. The javalina or peccary. They are two different beasts.

I raised pigs as a child on a farm and it was strange to see one in the swamp. Anyone who has ever been around pigs much knows their smell. I definitely smelled them before I saw them from the boat. Musky.

See you Sunday with more Newfoundland birds!

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2birdfeature REVAMPED: Newfoundland-style

Earlier this year I ran a series called "2birdfeature" where I zoomed in on 2 species of birds seen on Protection Island, WA, USA (where I did the fieldwork for my masters). If you would like to read about those feathered dinos, click the links below. #1#2#3#4#5#6


I'm bringing 2birdfeature back but this time, on a different island in a different ocean. I recently had an incredible opportunity to travel around the island of Newfoundland (one half of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada) to survey boreal landbirds during their breeding season.

I live in the capital city, St. John's, which lies on a four-armed peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean called the Avalon Peninsula. After living here for a number of years, I was eager to adventure away from the Avalon Peninsula into the heart of the island and lucky for me, all the way north to the very tip of the Northern Peninsula where polar bears and other such magical creatures call home.

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My focus was mostly migratory inland birds (lots of songbirds and woodpeckers) but I also noted many shorebirds, seabirds, and birds of prey. Mammals too! More moose than I can count, several run-ins with caribou and one very interesting morning playing hide and go...stalk?...with a rather large male black bear.

I was on the road for over a month camping in the back of my SUV and when I got lucky, putting my feet up at a number of beautiful heritage B&B's.

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It was an incredible, if not surreal, experience to walk through some of the last wild woods that remain on our planet. I have much to say about literally going where no woman has gone before. Most of it, in terms of getting my boots stuck in Newfoundland bogs and being attacked by Greater Yellowlegs while my boots are stuck in a bog.

Come back Wednesday for the first Newfoundland-style 2birdfeature.

All of the photos on today's post came from my Instagram account which is linked to this blog. A feed of my photos can be found in your sidebar on the right-hand side of your screen. If you're on a phone or iPad, scroll to the bottom to see more photos from my daily adventures. I never use filters so what you see is what you get.

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Swamp Bandits

The title should actually read: Swamp Bandits: A story about one woman shaking her clenched fist at a raccoon and smiling at the same time.

Swamp Bandits: One woman's bittersweet tale about a thieving masked criminal and how she constantly tried to overcome saying "awww" as he stole pounds of expensive horse grain from her barn.

Swamp Bandits: Skunk imposters that actually turned out to be raccoons, 47% of the time. There were also a lot of skunks, turns out.

Maybe you're new here. I'm from Colorado. I grew up on a farm. What kind of farm? Well, I suppose technically it was a grass hay farm. But we kept a charcuterie plate of many farm animals. A heavy dose of turkeys, rabbits, and miniature donkeys and a more conservative offering of pigs, sheep, horses, goats, chickens, dogs, and cats. Conservative perhaps, on a farmer's scale. Which is to say, we had five dogs and the barn cats went in waves of wild free love movements which caused surprising shifts in their population.

I live in Canada now. It's relaxing here. I have one unkillable house plant and a four-toed hedgehog. There are very few daily farm tragedies here ("Mom, the goats are out again, and they're eating the freshly planted trees..."). And in Newfoundland, almost zero Swamp Bandits.

I recently traveled to the Everglades on a birding adventure where I once again encountered an old foe.

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These raccoons live in the mangroves. Generally, they survive off of opportunity. They eat what they can get. And in this case, the airboat captains feed them various treats to get them to perform for tourists. They're untrained, of course. But I'm certain that all raccoons are secretly comedians with an understanding of universal hijinks choreography.

These are airboats. They are loud and fast and fun. For one time. And then you've pretty much experienced it and you're ok to take it or leave it.

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These airboat tours run under the guise that you will mostly be seeing gators. But I counted one gator on the whole of the outing and roughly 15 raccoons. So you tell me what the tour is really for.

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Raccoons live all over North America (and are introduced in parts of Europe and Asia) and thus, people from basically everywhere can contribute a story about a barn criminal or a hulking raccoon they mistook as their own black lab.

I had many run-ins with raccoons on the farm. Especially with The Corporal, a giant raccoon that turned out to be a very pregnant mama who birthed three or four bushy baby masked criminals in our irrigation ditch among the hay. I looked at them all huddled together, eyes wide with wonder and gave them a lifetime pardon in the first three seconds of observation. I'm a terrible disciplinarian.

More Everglades raccoons.

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We tried to jail the criminals, my dad specifically. He set live traps for them in smart yet seemingly random locations about our acres.

The main targets of these live traps were chicken-eating foxes or grain-thieving raccoons but apparently had Skunk Cottage written all over them for the unfortunate number of Striped Skunks that found themselves trapped and sprayed to express their frustration or gratitude or whatever.

Of course, some people swear by these little devils as pets. They're not soft (coarse, actually) and they'd steal the corn-on-the-cob right off your dinner plate but I suppose they are quite lovable in their own way.

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After being reintroduced to my old nemesis, I've decided to wave my white flag in submission of their cuteness. You win Swamp Bandit. For now.

If you'd like to see a few seconds of video wherein these Everglades raccoons scurry around begging for crackers, check out my last post: 50th BLOG!!

And stick around for more birds and reptiles to come this weekend!