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Archive for the ‘Animal Kingdom’ Category

We are now officially out of hibernation here in Stockholm. The sun is out, the birds are singing, the flowers are blooming!

Last weekend we went for a walk near the sea. We saw these two diving sea ducks, a male and a female, taking turns going under. I love watching diving birds, waiting for them to re-surface, watching how easily and gracefully they slip under the water and pop back up. These birds are called Common Goldeneye in English and Knipa in Swedish. They nest in tree-holes, eat fish, crustaceans and insects and can be found in the Northern Hemisphere in coastal waters.

Image

Common Goldeneye (Knipa), Stockholm, Sweden in late March

I am no expert on birds. The wikipedia article is pretty good, in English here and Swedish here.

I looked up the word ‘knipa’ in the dictionary – it is a noun meaning a jam or a fix, and as a verb it means to pinch, win or obtain. I was surprised, these words don’t seem to have much to do with the bird! The entomology section of the wikipedia article in Swedish says that the name first was used in 1611 and may have been used to describe the way the wings sound when the bird takes flight (it is onomatopoeic). It might also be related to a  sailing term

I was surprised to see so many local names for this bird, every area seems to have its own language here! I’ve listed them below from the wiki article.

Skatand (Värmland), knijper, strandkniper, knip, kneip, knipoxe, knipånn, knipand, gnällvinge (Närke), isand (Bohuslän), dopping och doppand (Göteborg). The female has been called knipkärring and brunnacke.

In English, the name ‘goldeneye’ speaks for itself. It has been called ‘the Whistler’ given the sounds the wings make. Next time, I will wait to hear what they sound like when they fly – I was too focused on trying not to scare them off this time!

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Northern Flicker

It has been so long since I last posted! My camera broke and the winter arrived, so I went into hibernation. I have been so inspired lately by the beautiful birds at the bird feeder, that I’ve decided to go into my archives to try to identify some birds I have photographed.

These photos were taken in September in Boston. I had some trouble identifying this bird at first, but thank goodness for google! I googled “brown bird black spot chest” and found it right away. This Northern Flicker is quite distinctive because of its spots and red nape crescent on the back of the head, which you can just barely make out in one photo. I had seen this bird foraging on the ground, but it turns out it is a woodpecker that also looks for insects on the ground. Flickers are large woodpeckers that are often seen on the ground in open areas (reference: Sibley Guide to Birds).

Northern Flicker, Boston, MA in September

Northern Flicker, Boston, MA in September

I couldn’t tell right away if it was a Yellow-Shafted or Red-Shafted Flicker because I didn’t catch it flying to see the under part of the wings. But odds are that this is a Yellow-Shafted (Taiga/Eastern) Flicker because I saw it in Massachusetts and the face is brown, not gray. This is a female Flicker because the face is all one color, there is no black malar (the feathers along side of the lower jaw) as is found in male Yellow Northern Flickers (the malar is red in Red-Shafted males). For more information, check out the website www.eol.org.

In this photo, you can just catch the red mark on the back of the neck. She is in the process of looking for insects in the grass, most likely ants.

Northern Flicker, Boston, MA in September

Northern Flicker, Boston, MA in September

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April in Boston, walking along the marshy banks of the Fens, you expect to see people jogging, Canada geese grazing and the common mallard swimming around looking for hand outs. I was surprised and delighted to come across a muskrat! Due to my ignorance about identifying this species, I at first thought it was a beaver. Apparently, his narrow tail and smaller size lets you know he is a muskrat, although this semi-aquatic rodent also (like the beaver) likes to live in wetlands, marshes and ponds.

I caught him on video!

Here he is eating some leaves off of a branch:

And here he is running into the water once he realizes he’s been spotted:

Apparently muskrats can stay underwater for over 15 minutes, so I didn’t stick around to find out where he’d pop up.

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It’s a snow-less winter so far, so it is not quite as colorless as this time last year. But nevertheless, the dull browns and grays are tiresome, and that is why this little spot of red I caught looking for food was a thrill over the holidays.

Pileated Woodpecker, Massachusetts, Dec 2011

This bird is called a Pileated Woodpecker. You can tell this particular one is a male because there is a red line from the beak to the throat (instead of a black one on females). The loud noise it makes pecking holes in trees looking for insects makes the woodpecker’s presence known. I wonder how its brain is protected from all that banging against a tree? As a child, I thought all woodpeckers were similar to the cartoon Woody Woodpecker (hence the title of this post), but I don’t think the woody woodpecker call is the same as the pileated one from nature.

This bird also brings to mind the drawing of pileated woodpeckers by John James Audubon (retrieved from wikicommons). In his drawing, you can see that they eat insects from trees and berries.  Females are on the top, males are on the bottom and you can get a gimpse of the white underside of the wings.

John James Audubon - Pileated Woodpecker

 

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Wild Turkeys!

Out in the suburbs of Boston, I saw a gaggle of turkeys making their way across the lawn. These birds are so interesting looking, and are a bit creepy and funny to watch!  It is amazing to me that they have done so well living in the wild, but apparently they are omnivorous and the suburban woods  are good places to forage.  The best time to see turkeys is early morning or late afternoon when they go foraging. These pictures were taken in the afternoon (also taken from inside the house, so they didn’t turn out as clear as I would have liked).

Wild Turkeys, Outside Boston, MA

Wild Turkeys, Outside Boston, MA

There are six species of wild turkey, these are most likely the Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris), the same species the Puritans encountered in New England in colonial times.  I think they were all female because males are a lot larger than females and should have a kind of “beard” that hangs from their chins. Be careful if you come across turkeys with their babies, they will fight you (broods appear in June, the babies are called “poults”).  They also attack shiny objects, so if you are attacked that might be the reason (mostly during breeding season).  If you google “wild turkey boston, MA” you will discover that Boston and the surrounding suburbs have witnessed an increase in the number of turkeys who even make it into the city. Some people have seen groups of them of almost 20 at a time and they tend to stop traffic and have harassed residents.

I especially liked the article on “How to Live with Turkeys” http://www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw/wildlife/living/living_with_turkeys.htm

More information on wild turkeys in Massachusetts: http://www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw/wildlife/facts/birds/turkey/turkey_home.htm

An NPR story from 2006 on wild turkeys: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6504117

It is only September, but thinking of turkeys makes me excited for Thanksgiving!

Wild Turkeys, Outside Boston, MA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The common mallard, or green-headed duck, is the type of duck we see on ponds and lakes, especially in urban parks.  The ducks near my apartment live in the Back Bay Fens where there is water and marshland and plenty of people to throw them some bread crumbs.

January in Boston, Massachusetts

I was so impressed with the color of these ducks’ heads, I had to take some pictures.  How bright and radiant the color green!  And how orange the bill and feet!

Common Mallard, Boston, MA in January

Male Common Mallards, January

You can tell he is in his mating plumage because of the green head. When not in mating season, the males look similar to the females with drab brown heads but still have the bright orange beaks.

The female ducks were nearby as well, brown with a blue stripe on the wings.

Male and Female Common Mallards, January in Boston

Common Mallards, Male and Female, January in Boston

I just learned about this new site, Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), and I think I’ll be using it much more from now on.  EOL has a good description of the common mallard and has several links to other sites with good information.

I also came across an interesting and different way of learning about ducks recently, specifically learning about their mating habits which were not what I imagined… I was listening to Science Friday on NPR, and the guest, Isabella Rossellini (an actress and film maker), was discussing her new show on the Sundance Channel (www.sundancechannel.com).  The series, called Seduce Me, describes the mating habits of several animals in a kind of funny way, acting them out with puppets and people.  After watching the duck episode I will never think of ducks the same again…(a little rated R, just to warn you!).  Check it out here.  In a nutshell: Male ducks have corkscrew penises and force copulation. The vaginal canals of female ducks have evolved to be like a maze – the male duck that the female would like to mate with will have a higher chance of successfully mating with her.  Pretty interesting!

Well it snowed here again today… not very much but enough to make my hopes of spring dampened a bit.  Snowdrops and crocuses are out, though, so spring is starting!  I can’t wait to post more about flowers.

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There hasn’t been a lot of nature to photograph and blog about lately here in Boston. We’ve been hit with so many snow storms it’s hard to keep track. One thing that I’ve enjoyed throughout this winter, though, is walking along the Fens and watching the ducks in the water. Although the common ducks (mallards) can be interesting and beautiful, especially in their winter mating plumage (I will post about them later), one duck stood out.

Smaller than the rest, swimming fast with a little waddle and a oddly shaped white head, this little duck was all by himself searching for something.

Male Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), February 2011, Boston, MA

For some reason I find diving ducks so fascinating!  I like to watch them dive and wait for them to return to the surface.  I caught this merganser taking a dive:

And then I caught him coming back to the surface:

This diving duck is called a Hooded Merganser. This one is male, you can tell because his head is white (females have brown heads, not white). It is also in its breeding plumage because his head was quite white (non-breeding, males have “dusky”-colored heads).  It looked to me like this duck’s head was a funny shape, but actually that is its crest, like a mohawk, which can be expanded or contracted.

A few facts about the hooded merganser:

  • The only merganser restricted to North America naturally
  • The smallest species of merganser in North America
  • Mergansers form pairs in early winter
  • They are short distance migrants and stick around as long as the ponds, lakes or rivers aren’t iced over
  • They dive for small fish, crustaceans and insects
  • They have their own genus, the Lophodytes

I love to learn the meanings of names, so I looked up the roots of the hooded merganser’s latin name.  Loph- means “crest”, which makes sense because of this bird’s quite unmistakable crest!

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Last spring, I came across empty snail shells while walking in the park near my apartment in Stockholm.  It was March and I was excited that the snow was melting and spring was hopefully on its way, instead of flowers coming up through the melting snow I found these shells.  I thought they were pretty, nonetheless, with their brown and white lines.

Garden Banded Snail Shells, Stockholm, Sweden (March, 2010)
Garden Banded Snail Shells, Stockholm, Sweden (March, 2010)

There are two very similar species: the garden banded snail (or “white-lipped snail”) and the grove snail (or “brown-lipped snail”).  I believe these are the white-lipped snail because there is no brown lip and because white-lipped snails are closer to the arctic than the brown-lipped.

I have to admit, I had to look up how to tag these guys, my taxonomy is a bit rusty! They belong in the Mollusk phylum because they have no backbone (and specifically, the Gastropod class is made up of snails and slugs).  In Latin, these little guys are called cepaea hortensis.  I looked up “snail” in Swedish and found that they use the same word for snail as for slug, en snigel. A snail is a slug with a shell, snigel med skal. I dug a little bit deeper and found that it’s true, snails and slugs are not very different except for the shell and the habitat.

Garden banded snail, Stockholm, Sweden (June)
Garden banded snail, Stockholm, Sweden (June)

Three months later, in June, I went for a walk after a rain storm, and lo and behold, I found these garden banded snails alive and climbing everywhere – along hand rails and rock ledges.

 

Garden banded snail, Stockholm, Sweden (June)

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In Stockholm last March, I spent some time watching the ducks in the water near my apartment. There were common gulls and regular ducks that I’d seen in the U.S. many times. There were a few birds that I hadn’t seen before (see previous post on coots).

I thought that several of the birds were unrelated, but in fact they were males and females that looked very different. The Common Merganser, or Goosander, is a diving duck that lives in large lakes and rivers in the northern hemisphere. The females were interesting to me because of their rusty-brown head with crest – kind of like a bad hair-do.

Female Common Merganser (Storskrake), Stockholm, Sweden

The males were traveling together and didn’t have the crest (they were wearing their breeding plumage, these photos were taken in March).

Male Common Mergansers (Storskrakar), Stockholm, Sweden

I wish I had been able to get closer, these photos were taken with the lens zoomed all the way in. Apparently they have serrated bills to help them clasp down on fish.  In Swedish, the common merganser is called “storskrake”. “Stor” means “big” and “krake” means “weakling”.  Are these birds big weaklings?

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European Hare

In August, I saw a few large rabbits running around the campus at work. It turns out you can’t call any rabbit a rabbit, these were in fact hares, which are bigger, faster and breed on the ground and not in a burrow.

European Hare, Stockholm, Sweden

The Latin name is quite straightforward, Lepus europaeus, meaning European hare. In Swedish, hare is the same word as in English.  When I looked it up in the Swedish dictionary, it noted that “hare” is used figuratively of cowards. Is it because you often see them running away at the sight of a human? Why do we call cowards scare-dy cats or chickens?  After a little googling, I found that the adjective sense for chicken of “cowardly” goes back to the 14th century, Shakespeare used it in the 1600’s, and we still use it today.

I looked up “hare” in the online etymology dictionary and didn’t come up with much, except I was reminded of the slang word “hare-brained”, which means “skittish flighty”.  This makes sense if you see a hare darting away as you approach. I took a short video to illustrate.

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