Saturday, July 30, 2011

Summer on the Rocks

By the end of July, the water levels at the Falls of the Ohio are pretty low. This year's floods created a new sand bar just below the Interpretive Center which is  attractive to ducks, geese, and fishermen. The fishermen know to come early and leave when it gets hot, but the tourists haven't quite figured that one out yet, and they tend to arrive around 11:30, just as the heat and humidity become unbearable, not realizing that the fossils beds themselves will be 20 degrees hotter than at the top of the hill.
Local birders have flocked to the Falls during this time hoping to see the American Pelican which has been there for about six weeks now.  This is an immature bird, as evidenced by the dusky bill and dark patches on the wings. An adult will have a bill that is taxi cab yellow in color. Oddly enough, this is the third summer in which a single American Pelican has appeared at the Falls, enjoyed the fishing, then disappeared in the autumn.  Do you think Pelicans "twitter" to each other about unusual places to vacation? Otherwise, how would three different birds find out about us?  This morning, this bird paddled around fishing for a while, then spread his 8 foot long wings to fly for a while, then settled on a rock for some serious preening. The black primaries on his wings were unmistakable.  This is definitely not an Egret or some other white bird!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

You Know You're a Raptor Person When...

You start looking like the bird you are presenting.
All the volunteers Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky contributed towards this article in the most recent newsletter. It doesn't take long for new people to really get into the spirit of it!

  • You wonder why the table next to you at the restaurant is staring at you and your fellow volunteers as you talk about gutting rats over dinner.
  • You cheer for the hawks when you're watching predator/prey shows on the Nature Channel.
  • Your nose piercing was made by a Great Horned Owl.
  • You stop to pick up road kill to reduce the food bill.
  • You are happy the puncture that talon just put in your arm is bleeding profusely since that means it won't be as inflamed as if it didn't bleed.
  • You can pick up a mouse and tell what it weighs within 5 grams.
  • You carry a net, towel, gloves and a box in your car, just in case.
  • You pull road kill to the side of the road so vultures won't get hit feeding on it.
  • You leave your office and go outside because you hear a hawk calling, and it's during a sales meeting.
  • You tell a squirrel to "get a move on before you become owl food."
  • You plan your vacation around the baby season.
  • You know what happens when you try to thaw a mouse in the microwave.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Lions and Tigers and Bears...and SNAKES!

The Cincinnati Zoo is known for its collection of cats of all sizes.  They call this one a "white" lion, (although it looks a pale beige to me) but look at its blue eyes! I just finished re-reading the Clan of the Cave Bear series about life in the ice age, and this could certainly be a cave lion, if it were about twice as big that is. The pale color would blend in well with dried grasses on the steppe.
Their tiger was also white, the Siberian Tiger.  Zoos always post a sign with information about the normal habitat of each animal, and it's disturbing to see the limited range and numbers for many of these animals in the wild.

We were a bit surprised to see three polar bears in the same enclosure. I didn't know they would get along with each other so well. Two sat and tried to stay cool in the July Fourth heat, while the third (which looked like a male) paced around the entire time we were there. None of them swam in the large pool, which would seem to be the sensible thing to do in hot weather.

As we entered the Reptile House, I recognized the building from childhood visits to the zoo. I was so busy trying to take photos through the glass that I didn't pay much attention to the names of the subjects in my viewfinder though. But sometimes the names aren't as important as the look on the face.  I definitely want this one to stay behind glass!

Somehow I don't feel as sorry for the reptiles in captivity as I do for the mammals. They don't pace or look as bored as the mammals, so I don't relate to them as much. Did you notice?  Lizards have eyelids and snakes don't. Maybe that constant stare of a snake (since he can't blink) is what makes us all a bit uncomfortable with them. 

Thursday, July 07, 2011

All Too Human

The primate area at the zoo always disturbs me, and sometimes I actually refuse to go in and see the chimps and apes there.  They are just too human looking, and it makes me feel very uncomfortable to see them locked up for life. They are bored, and everything they do naturally is laughed at by humans who feel superior.  Well, I think our ancestors were very much like these apes, and we shouldn't feel so smug.  But for the grace of God, there go I and all of you as well.
With timing that never fails to amaze me, NOVA had a program just last night about Ape Genius, which addresses the question bothering me. Since apes share 98-99% of our DNA, why did we develop into humans, and they did not?  What makes us human? Recent research shows that apes may be more developed than we imagined before, with behavior and emotions very much like our own. The study included bonobos, an ape species living only in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the last great ape species to be discovered. Bonobos look more like humans than other apes, and display many behavioral similarities as well.
Different researchers studied mechanical aptitude, imitation, cooperation, social emotions, math/symbol skills, and communication in chimps and bonobos. When a peanut was placed at the bottom of a clear tube, I didn't come up with the answer, but the chimp filled the tube with water to float the peanut to the top. The chimps would watch as another chimp worked out the answer to a puzzle box, then imitate it to get the same reward. Teamwork and cooperation with each other didn't come naturally to the chimps, but they would cooperate with humans in the same situation.
The chimps in the study could gauge who is responsible for something done, determining intentions, as when another chimp stole the food. Bonobos helped each other at risk to themselves in defense of a dead bonobo which humans were trying to remove. A mother carried the body of her dead infant around for days. Grief? Sounds like it to me. Impulse control seemed to be a recurring theme.  The tests also studied human children's ability to control the desire for instant gratification. Greed and self interest is high on the chimp priorities when it comes to a dish of candy at least. But using symbols helped distance the ape from its impulses. One bonobo, in particular, performed a number of tasks based only on verbal requests from the human, understanding a sequence of actions to be performed in order, while displaying a large vocabulary.

Communication is a primary human trait however, which the apes did not do as well. Pointing to things, and the ability to almost mind read to understand which object is being pointed to is vital to human development, allowing us to use cooperative tools in ways other species do not.  Mothers and babies pay full attention to each other with shared goals and commitment, allowing them to learn.  In fact, one of the conclusions I made is that human desire to teach and learn is a big factor in making us human. So hurray for the teachers! All parents say they have a civilizing effect, and now we can see they have a humanizing effect a well.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Super Zoobirds

Andean Condors
The Zoological Society of Cincinnati was founded in 1873 and officially opened its doors in 1875, making the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden the second oldest Zoo in the United States. The Zoo’s original animal collection was very small, originally consisting of just eight monkeys, two grizzly bears, three deer, six raccoons, two elk, a buffalo, a hyena, a tiger, an alligator, a circus elephant, and over four hundred birds, including a talking crow. The Zoo was founded on 65 acres in the middle of the city, and since then has acquired some of the surrounding blocks and several reserves in Cincinnati’s suburbs. In the birding world, the Cincinnati Zoo is known as the last home of the now-extinct Passenger Pigeon. The last Passenger Pigeon, named Martha, died alone at the Cincinnati Zoo at about 1:00 pm on September 1, 1914. Now they have a great collection of cats- large and small, along with reptiles, insects and (my favorites of course) birds. Our trip to the Cincinnati Zoo over the holiday weekend was the first in more years than I can actually recall, and the place has changed a lot.

Andean Condors
The Andean Condor is the biggest bird in the world, with a wingspan up to 10.5 feet, and males weighing in at 24 - 33 pounds! In a zoo, they may live up to 70 years.  Reproduction is an issue, since they only lay one egg every other year. With a wingspan so large, they do not favor forested areas, but you notice that the zoo has many trees in their net-covered enclosure. As always, click any photo for a larger version. In particular, take a look at the size of their feet.
Female Andean Condor
It's easy to see that these birds are related to our local vultures. I have another photo where you can see through their large nostril hole, just like our Turkey Vultures. Isn't her white collar pretty?
Male Andean Condor
The male Condor must have some special attraction for the female though. I wonder if he has a hard time seeing around those extra skin flaps on his face.

Eurasian Eagle Owl
Many exhibits were inside buildings, so photos taken of animals behind glass may be a bit blurry. This Eurasian Eagle Owl was the star of a Night Hunters exhibit along with several species of small cats.  Our Binx would have related to all those cats, which so greatly resemble domestic cats. I wondered if the animals could see through the glass, and guessed that it was one-way at first.  As I tried to focus on this owl in the dark though, I saw a red focusing light reflecting on the bird, and watched it turn to face me.  Apparently he could see that light from my side at least. The Eagle Owl is native to North Africa, Europe, Asia, Middle East and the female may weigh in at up to 10 pounds, larger than the Snowy Owl. It resembles the Great Horned Owl, but I don't think the facial disc is as pronounced.

Not all the birds are in cages though, and this Peacock had staked out one of the restaurants as his panhandling territory.  He was polite about it though, not making any noise or threatening anyone. If you ignored him, he'd just walk away to the next table.

He was quite willing to pose, and stood still for longer than any other bird I tried to photograph all day. It's not too often you can get this much detail from a bird's feathers.

Like all fashion models, he gave me the eye until I came up with his fee - half a potato chip!  I doubt that Christie Brinkley ever worked for so little!  Eventually, he flew to the top of the building and decided that pickings might be better elsewhere.  It took a lot of effort to lift that long tail to the roof.
Crowned Crane
Reviewing these photos, I realize that most of the birds we saw are variations on birds found in North America - owls, vultures, eagles, and cranes for example. Seeing the variation in color and plumage makes me wonder what the survival advantage is for each of them. For example, how would the "crown" on this crane help it to survive in its African home?

Stellar's Sea Eagle
The Stellar's Sea Eagle is native to northeastern Asia, north of Japan, and of course it eats primarily fish. Does that huge beak give it some survival advantage?  How about a wingspan of 77 - 91 inches? (That's 8.25 feet) Whew! It must take a LOT of fish to keep a bird that size aloft.
Pink Billed Pelican
I've seen Brown Pelicans and White Pelicans, but this is a Pink-billed Pelican, about the size of the Brown, looking rather anemic with that pink bill.
As we watched the polar bears pacing in their enclosure, I noticed white vertical markings on the wall.  Hmm, looks like bird droppings.  A closer look revealed a crevasse in the fake stone, and a small Puffin hiding within. Do you think Marcel Marceau (the mime) was inspired by this bird when he came up with the white face makeup he used for his silent character?  It's a possibility!

Sunday, July 03, 2011

What is Time?

Happy Declaration of Independence Day everyone!  We attended a concert by the Louisville Chorus Friday evening, along with all the other senior citizens in St. Matthews, and I started thinking. (A dangerous pastime, I know.) My thoughts have been led along by a new television show I enjoy on the Science Channel called Through the Wormhole. Morgan Freeman is the narrator, and that's certainly reason enough to watch it- I love listening to his voice. After all, it is the voice of God, right? Given all the "reality" shows that have absolutely nothing to do with reality in my opinion, it's refreshing to watch a show dedicated to physics and cosmology, where even scientists with opposing theories about the universe can be respectful or even friends with each other.
Anyway, recent episodes have discussed whether the universe is infinite or not, and if time really exists. See why I love this?  Why waste your time thinking about doing laundry, when you can contemplate really big things? I've been a science fiction lover since college, so some of these theories about multiverses and parallel universes actually sound familiar to me. I admire fiction writers who learn about science and incorporate it in their stories.
I see the scientists on the show writing long equations on a board, using symbols and math that are way beyond my comprehension. Heck, I had trouble with geometry and algebra in high school.  That's why I didn't major in science. Although it always fascinated me I couldn't hack the math.

Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist, works with the science of black holes, despite having ALS which has decreased his ability to move his body over the years. When diagnosed at age 21, this genius was given two years to live, yet he overcame all odds, and is still alive today. He manages to communicate with the aid of a computer which vocalizes for him, and even gives speeches at scientific conferences.
But let's return to the discussion of time. Even my 27-year-old son notices that time seems to go faster now than it did when he was a child. At the concert (finally, she's getting back to the beginning of this blog...) we were entertained by a slide show of historic pictures to accompany the music. Many were patriotic, of course, showing the development of our country, wars, and people influential in America. I couldn't help but think about the ideals people have and how they can be deflected from the original intention. All men are created equal...except for slaves, even after emancipation, and women, of course, and child laborers, or immigrants who just arrived. And how about religious freedom?  As long as you agree with our religion, of course. How did anyone have the courage to leave everything familiar and move to a new country? How did those women cross the nation in covered wagons, knowing  if they got into trouble, they had to get out of it themselves or die. I don't think I would have made a very good pioneer. Sigh, things have gotten better, I hope, but there are still so many problems left to solve. Over the thousands of years people have existed as human beings, have we managed to make a positive effect in the world? discusses time in a thought provoking manner. Only "now" exists, yet "now" passes into the past, which only exists in memory while future only exists in imagination. Actually, time may be simply a way to measure motion.
The problem of time may be easy to solve if we go back to the original concept of sun moving across the sky. When we measure the speed of a car, we are just comparing its motion to the motion of the hands of the clock and also indirectly to the fractional motion of sun across the sky.We are not measuring speed with something abstract called time we are just comparing a known motion (of the sun) with an unknown motion of the car.
Time becomes evident through motion and is measured by comparison with other motions. Sunrise, sunsets, night and day, the changing seasons, the movement of the celestial bodies are all indicative of continuous change. The aging process is a reminder that molecular motion and interactions are also at work and are a part of time.
The best part of such thinking is that I don't have to do it very often. It doesn't wake me up a night like some things do. And it doesn't really affect my day to day life at all.  But it's nice to know that I can occasionally set my mind on something deep and esoteric. Just remember, the only constant in life is change.