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!

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!

Rhinoceros Puffins

20130625-DSCN0657 Is a seabird? Check. Is relatively small and dives for food? Check. Does not have a brilliantly colored bill like a puffin? Nope. Must be an auklet.

This is what I think happened when Rhinoceros Auklets were named. But really and truly, they are puffins. They radiated about 5 million years ago and are closely related to auklets. My research provides further evidence of this in that they have similar voices. But they are individuals in their own right.

Little is known about Rhinoceros Auklets. We have studied them on land during their breeding season.

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But we're not entirely sure where they go for the rest of the year. We know they go far out to sea. And to watch them on land is to verify that they're built for living on the water. I've never witnessed a more clumsy bird (then again, I've never seen albatrosses in person).

I spent 3 months virtually alone on Protection Island, WA with these birds (and the guillemots). I weighed and measured the rhino chicks every other day and recorded them every night. When they fledged their burrows, it was actually a bit sad for me. I had become their loud, obnoxious people-parent and they had grown so used to me that they would crawl into my red weigh bag every time I dipped them from their nests.

I saw some of the fledglings the next morning in the marina. They usually stick around for a single day before they head all the way out to sea--or wherever they go. So as I observed the guillemots from the boat every morning, I watched the fledgling rhinos and said goodbye to them as I fondly recalled them as tiny puffy babies.

Again, I have many photos of them as pufflings. But I cannot show you just yet because they're tied up in a manuscript I will soon submit for publishing. Patience, my friends.

What I can do is show you some fledgling rhinos.

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Do you see the tiny rhinoceros "horn" on the tops of their bills? Both males and females have those.

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I hope you enjoyed the photos of one of my favorite birds. I am a little biased. When you spend 3 months on an island with no one to talk to but the birds, you become very attached and pretty weird.

Come back next Sunday for my final post on Protection Island, WA.

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...

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...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

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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.

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Glaucous-winged Gull

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And now...the little camo babies!

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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!

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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.