"I" is for Ibis

Before I begin, do you have Instagram? If you'd like to see photographs of wild Newfoundland, Canada from my month-long bird survey work all over the island, stop in and follow me! Thanks! @inkfromthequill


The first time I ever heard the word "ibis" was in my great grandmother's lap reading a tattered old alphabet book early on a Wednesday morning. I know it was a Wednesday morning because I spent every Wednesday with my great grandparents as a child. Their humble cabin-style home with the stove in the corner made for a warm quilt tossed over my young impressionable bird-learning years.

By the way, I'm still experiencing those young impressionable bird-learning years and I'm having a helluva time.

The letter "I" in the book had a photo of an ibis next to it--which I thought was pronounced "ibbiss" until I heard my grandmother say it aloud. The White Ibis isn't an overly resplendent bird. But there is something extravagant about its beet red face juxtaposed against a flawlessly white body. Here are some adults in Naples, FL.

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When we drove up on these birds crossing a median, I thought they were lawn ornaments. They can stay shockingly still if they need to.

And strange as it might be, juvenile White Ibises don't have much white on them. Let's head back to Marsh Trail in the Everglades to have a look at some immature ibises.

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The older the birds get, the whiter they get. They are very closely related to Roseate Spoonbills with whom they share glades and mangrove swamps (Roseate Spoonbills in The Everglades). They eat mostly crustaceans including crayfish, crabs and shrimp. They don't mind the odd frog or insect either. And the good news is that there is a healthy North American population of about 209,000 White Ibises.

We're staying put on Marsh Trail this Sunday but we're straying into songbird territory for just a moment!

Meet my Tasmanian Friends

Because Newfoundland insists on perpetual winter, I must admit that I'm running a little low on material. The spirit of Ned Stark haunts this place. Winter came, as promised. And now, after a series of months, the conclusion is...winter is still here. Sort of anticlimactic. And sorry if you're one of those non-Game of Thrones watchers (You're wasting time! Get to it!). Admittedly, a person so obsessed with birds doesn't just get that way overnight. I have somewhat of a treasure trove of photos from pre-graduate school times. I probably have poor quality bird photos from when I was a kid, I'm not sure. But this weekend I have dug back to 2010 when I lived in Hobart, Tasmania for a brief time during my undergrad.

Looking back, I wish my obsession had been as far advanced then as it is now. But those of you who live in Australia or have been there can attest to the fact that your brain is basically not functioning when you see AUS for the first time. Mind = officially blown. And as a young zoologist just cutting my teeth, I could not handle the amount of free ranging marsupials and colorful feathers everywhere.

Let's take the University of Tasmania campus for instance.

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The Superb Fairy-wren was the first bird I saw in Tasmania.

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These lapwings hatched chicks all over campus and could be seen ambling around with a handful of babies in tow. I had to discontinue studying outdoors because the tiny babies were too distracting.

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Below you will find the bird that has taken up the task of being Tasmania's personal alarm clock. Click on the link below if you'd like to hear what I heard every single morning: https://youtu.be/OcxUndi2Lgg

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Too bad the next little guy hid from me. Spinebills are very cool birds to watch.

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The last bird for today will be this curious currawong. He lived in the trees above my dorm and greeted me every day with a great amount of ruckus outside my window. Between the currawongs and wattlebirds, I was awake.

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Next week we'll look at a few birds from Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary!

They're not just boring seagulls

I have to admit that as I write this, all I can think about is Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls" lyrics. Except for I like to sing it "In a West End town, a dead-end world...the East End boys and Western GULLS". Of course, the gulls on Protection Island are mostly Glaucous-winged Gulls (GWG). But many of them are varying degrees of hybrid between GWG's and Western Gulls. I think the reason I'm so defensive about gulls is that the average person is so used to seeing them (often eating at dumpsters or using the restroom on your car) that they reduce gulls to the level of pigeons. Which ALSO isn't fair. Pigeons are technically doves people and gulls are incredibly successful seabirds with hilarious personalities. Successful? Yes. They are numerous, aren't they? And very speciose.

Just look at this fellow preening. Isn't he beautiful?

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There are two GWG colonies on Protection Island, one of them quite large. I spent every morning recording and observing Pigeon Guillemots in the marina which is also the epicenter of the large gull colony. Between the rock crevices full of nesting guillemots, the high tide embankment lined with gull nests and the rocky beaches with scattered oystercatcher eggs, it was a busy, exciting place to watch. Gulls are very protective over their nests. They will absolutely dive-bomb you and I've heard many stories from other scientists who have studied gulls on the island which detail thumps to the hard hat that nearly knocked them over. A bird colony where hard hats are necessary? Yes. Gulls do not enjoy human presence around their babies. Also, imagine this many gulls...times a few thousand...

Glaucous-winged Gull

...and now try to think up another reason you would want to wear a hard hat whilst walking among and under all of these flying birds.

Recognizing the difference between male and female GWG's takes a bit of practice. They both gather nesting material, build the nest, and incubate the eggs so you can't cheat and tell one from the other just by their parental duties. The key indicator is the shape of the head. And even that is not always reliable. Males have a skinnier, longer looking head while females' seem more puffy. Because birds can change their body shape just by adjusting their feathers, you have to observe gulls for some time before you can form a hypothesis on sex.

Try your hand at these guys.

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Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

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I counted 4 males and 2 females. What about this one? (I've given you three poses to choose from.)

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) - Protection Island, WA

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) - Protection Island, WA

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) - Protection Island, WA

I'm going to go with female here but this gal is tricky. It's nearly impossible without seeing them move around in person.

I'm betting some of you are still saying to yourselves, "Ok Steph, I've seen a gull before. And now I've seen one from every angle. Still a bit bored." That's about to change.

Soon: babies. But first! A few happy parents before their chicks hatch.

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

And now...the little camo babies!

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Glaucous-winged Gull

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Glaucous-winged Gull

And here's a mama regurgitating fish for her babies:

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I hope you've enjoyed the photos and videos of the gulls and that you might be willing to give them another chance and take a closer look. I will say this in your defense. The GWG's did snack on one of my study chicks and I didn't appreciate that. I saw the culprit and wished I had a slingshot. So, one bad gull. There's one in every crowd.

Come back Wednesday for a look at the wildflowers and other flora on Protection Island!

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

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2birdfeature #6

20130812-DSCN1905 One of these things is not like the others. And it doesn't care. Even as a more solitary bird, it seems as if the Double-crested Cormorant might like the company of an entire colony of Glaucous-winged Gulls. I saw a few cormorants during my time on the island but this little character was on the dock the day before I left the island for good. So I remember him fondly.

Most of the time when you see cormorants they are fishing or drying out in the sun in their characteristic horror movie stance. Cormorants lack a uropygial gland. This is the gland that produces the oil that birds preen into their feathers rendering them waterproof. It's odd that a water bird like a cormorant wouldn't have this gland but there you have it. In order to dry after swimming and diving, cormorants generally perch in trees or on rocks where the sunshine is plentiful. But to make the process go a bit faster, they spread their wings and stretch their necks forward.

Imagine an entire tree full of large black birds holding their wings out like a dozen grim reapers. Unsettling.

This fellow was doing something entirely different. He was watching the gulls with great interest and then jumping up and down on the horn cleats of the dock (that metal thing you tie your boat off to). An easily amused bird for an easily amused birder.

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Our second and final bird of the 2birdfeature posts will be this guy:

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The Cassin's Finch is a near threatened bird that lives in western North America. Prior to 1996, this bird was one of the more numerous finch species but it is now estimated that only 2 million remain. Lack in availability of nest sites is one reason for the decline but the species also struggles with male to female ratio. It seems that the natural balance tends to shift toward many more males than females which is problematic for obvious reasons.

If you're looking for Cassin's Finches, look toward the top of conifer trees in montane and subalpine forests. And listen for a call that sounds like "giddy-up". Finches are also famous for mocking other birds' calls so good luck to you there.

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I hope you've enjoyed the 2birdfeatures! Stop by this weekend for Glaucous-winged Gulls. I know what you're thinking. They're just a bunch of seagulls.

Think again.

Baby owls...nuff said...

20130625-DSCN0691 I first discovered the three Great Horned Owl nestlings while taking a shortcut through the middle of the island. Before I used 2 cans of WD-40 to get the chain functioning on a rusty old Schwinn, I walked everywhere. I walked around the perimeter of the island. Around the water tower. Through the grassy plateau atop the island filled with Black-tailed Deer. The old roads (made before the island was a protected refuge) were embossed with the soles of my irrigation boots. I saw many species of birds in one tiny stand of trees at the heart of the island's plateau. A handful of different songbirds and probably a dozen Bald Eagles. And then one evening, this young lady.

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And her gentleman caller.

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It never stops being mind-blowing to see owls. During my undergrad at CSU, when I first took ornithology (which spurred my love...obsession...with birds) I was birding a local river and spotted a Great Horned Owl nestling hopping around in branches above me. I remember scanning the trees and finding both the nestling's parents looking directly at me. The thing about looking for owls is that they always find you way before you find them.

The three nestlings on Protection Island grew so accustomed to me watching them that they often fell asleep looking in another direction. But the male and female parents always kept a close eye on me. See the video below for the indifference of one of the nestlings.

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In the few months that I lived on the island, I watched the downy little chicks go from puff balls to sleek, vole killing machines. I even saw one of them kill a large Glaucous-winged Gull and fly away over the trees with it. Sigh. They grow up so fast.

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